Find your zen: four meditation apps to try

Meditating in a group is not for everyone, writes Sonali Kokra, who chose to trial mindfulness apps as an alternative

The app Simple Habit has a sizeable selection of free and paid-for guided meditations. Getty Images 
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I’ll be honest, even though it paints me in a somewhat unflattering light: I signed up for my first mindful meditation class in a moment of desperation, not because of a carefully planned step in my path to enlightenment. I wasn’t looking to transform myself drastically, nor was I hoping to stumble across some poetic truth or profound paradox about the human condition. I was simply trying to regain my ability to participate in life like a functioning adult after a messy heartbreak.

I had tried other forms of meditation before – transcendental, Kundalini, Metta, Zen – but none lasted more than a couple of sessions. I was, it seemed, psychologically incapable of emptying my mind or reining in my thoughts. But desperate times call for desperate measures.

My therapist believed I needed to either find a way to decompress or seriously consider medication for anxiety, at least in the short term. Mindful meditation evangelists and friends told me it would help me be more present in the moment, instead of obsessing about the past or the future.

While research on the exact health benefits of meditation is sketchy (due to poor methodology and not taking into account the placebo effect), a 2014 review carried out by Dr Madhav Goyal at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland looked at 47 trials with 3,500 participants and found that eight weeks of meditation could have a "moderately positive" effect on depression, anxiety and pain. It's worth noting the study found no evidence to show that meditation was better than medication, behavioural therapy or exercise.

The point I'm trying to make is that meditation is not a one-size-fits-all cure. Nor is there anything wrong with seeking medication, if that's what a healthcare provider recommends. My therapist believed the former would help me because I was not clinically depressed; I was just going through a temporary period of emotional stress.

Group meditation is not for everyone

The literature on mindful meditation says it is simply meant to help you be. "Just being" seemed like a really good idea at the time. It still does. This was about four months ago; 16 weeks on, I've been sternly informed that I'm not getting a refund for the 29 of 32 classes I did not attend.

Here's a piece of advice for the undecided about meditation like me: do not commit to any longer than three sessions and pay as you go. I'm sure you have every intention of showing up – like I did – but even the most earnestly laid plans fall by the wayside. In my case, I realised the sound of so many strangers breathing around me, every last one looking beatific and self-actualised, had the opposite effect; there was too much unspoken rivalry over who was better at doing nothing in a group meditation set-up.

My second and last stop was the internet, where I browsed through dozens of apps tailor-made to help juggle various struggling, worn-out, tense, fidgety and fickle balls of anxiety that many millennials, myself included, have up in the air.

Here are a few I found sophisticated and on-point.

1. The Calm app

With its award-winning calming techniques and breathing exercises, the Calm app helped immensely when I felt an oncoming panic attack. The platform has also added a Sleep Stories section. I believe that no one is too old for a bedtime story, especially if it's being read out in the soothing voices of Matthew McConaughey, Jerome Flynn, Anna Acton, Stephen Fry and David Walliams. Calm offers a free seven-day trial, after which you pay $60 (Dh220) for a year or $400 for life.

2. Insight Timer

Insight Timer has an excellent library of free guided meditation sessions for specific purposes – sleep, motivation and creativity – for people who would rather not pay. But I'm not a big fan of its interface and aggressive focus on community insights.

3. 10% Happier

10% Happier has a large selection of goal-based courses and single sessions on various topics relevant to your purpose to keep you from falling off the meditation wagon. It's a clean interface and the experts are solid – a course to improve mental agility in high-pressure situations by George Mumford, the meditation counsellor to Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. Again, it offers a seven-day free trial, then costs $99 for a year.

4. Simple Habit

My favourite is Simple Habit, which has a little bit of everything: a sizeable selection of free and paid-for guided meditations for general relaxation, as well as those catering to specific needs. The sessions range from two to 20 minutes. The app also offers simple calming exercises for people on the go – so you can meditate while commuting, exercising, before a big event, as an SOS call for help – depending on how much time you have. As the name suggests, the aim is to help develop and maintain the meditation habit.

Baby steps on the path to peace

The thing about the practice, I've realised, is that it boils down to the same few organising principles: to try to rise above existential anxieties by using breathing as a means to disengage from the cycle of desires and disenchantments. It is not a withdrawal from the race of life, but an acceptance that there really is no "winning" it, and the only thing that truly exists is the present moment.

In the 10 weeks since I've been meditating, I have not experienced a life-changing transformation or epiphany. I haven't mastered the art of prancing through life, singing Hakuna Matata. I still have days when I'm up until 3am, worrying about an environmental apocalypse and how the world is hurtling towards a painful end. There are still times when I'm so nervous and fidgety that I can't sit still for even a few minutes.

To the casual observer, it might seem like meditation is a wasted exercise on me, but it’s not. Because these terrible days are fewer and further apart. I can sit with myself now without feeling the need to fill every moment with productivity or purpose. I don’t worry as much about the future (save for that environmental apocalypse) or endlessly mourn the past. I didn’t realise how much my inability to focus on the present was affecting my relationships, but I do now, and have a closer connection with almost everyone who matters in my life.

I learnt to do it all while sitting in my bed in pyjamas, with my cat for company. What more can you ask for, really?