New apps and technologies are boosting, personalizing and transforming the meditation experience

Apps bring meditation to the masses—and get people used to flipping meditation “channels”

There are now, according to estimates, roughly 1,500 meditation and mindfulness apps—and there’s no doubt that there has been no greater force ever in making the idea of meditation less mysterious and more accessible. Headspace alone has 35 million users in 190 countries while Calm has driven 26 million downloads with 50,000 new signups each day. While it’s important to note that the vast majority of meditations they serve up are the mindfulness meditation variety, they all have a different angle and vibe.

Headspace, Calm and MindFi, like so many of these apps, target their content and meditations toward specific life issues, such as mindful exercises for managing anger, falling asleep, or dealing with a bad relationship. Buddhify is based on what you’re doing right now, such as walking, trying to sleep, or scrolling through Instagram, and then serves up a meditation or insight based on that activity. The new Insight Timer is very different: It’s a sort of clearinghouse for 2,000 guided meditations from a network of 1,500 real teachers (most unaffiliated with the app) with the stated goal of “giving meditation away for free to everyone on the planet.” The INSCAPE app aims to be the “Spotify of mindfulness,” and it’s encouraging that they stress known, active-mechanism techniques: focused-based, mindfulness, visualization and mantra-based, meditations.

Now that most meditation practice has been app-ified, there are things to ponder. It’s indisputable that they’re bringing meditation to millions of more people. However, they’re also creating platforms that create an expectation of endless “meditations,” the kind of programming we are used to from Netflix. People need to understand that a good deal of what these apps serve up is not a “meditation practice.” There is often much wellness advice and wisdom and inspirational positive psychology (which is great), but at those app-moments, one is not practicing meditation. It’s too tiresome to ponder the irony that it is apps that will help us disconnect from the stresses of technology. But there are things to mull: We passively consume so much screen-based media, and now meditation is part of that. Is there a difference in the outcome from taking that meditation class in person (showing up and doing the work) compared with a guided meditation via an app? Scientists don’t know, and they should study it. By app-ifying all kinds of wellness, are we bypassing perhaps the most important thing that the wellness world delivers—community with other humans, group rituals, healthy things that happen with real teachers and people?

New technologies aim to boost and personalize—as well as hack—the meditation experience

A new flurry of technology solutions, using things such as biofeedback, EEG (brain wave) tracking, tDCS, and other biometric measurements, are aiming to boost and deepen meditation practices and to optimize and personalize the experience in real time. Another trend is tech that hacks the brain to produce meditation states without the need to meditate. Who would have ever thought that there would be a rising, distinct “meditation technology” space?

The new Muse 2 “brain sensing” headband is a standout. Its sensors track EEG brain signals, heartbeat, breath and body movements to deliver a meditation experience that changes and gives audio feedback in real time to guide you into a calm, focused state. For instance, your busy mind will create a rainstorm, your calmer mind a light drizzle, and if your brain waves are truly quiet, you hear birds chirping. Muse’s goal is to take the guesswork out of meditation. And it gamifies the experience (you get rewarded for meditation achievements) while it also sends that breathing and heart rate data back to your phone to keep you engaged with your progress. The DreamOn wearable uses low-frequency pulses to lull your brain to sleep but is also designed to be used as a meditation aid (and can walk you through meditations and breathing techniques). The Umay REST’s Thermal Meditation device was engineered to counteract the toll taken on our eyes and brains from being glued to digital devices 10 hours a day: It sits on your eyes, and its thermal therapy is aimed at restoring eye health while its “Thermal Meditation” (gentle vibration patterns for guided breath meditation) is designed to calm and clear the mind.

Healium is a virtual-reality-based meditation experience that runs on your brain waves and heartbeat to create a personal, interactive meditation environment. Through a wearable connected to the app, your EEG (and other) feedback create your VR meditation world—you may find yourself scaling mountains or relaxing near a waterfall. And a study in Frontiers of Psychology found that it only took four minutes for Healium to reduce anxiety. At L.A.’s Upgrade Labs, which positions itself as the world’s first biohacking health and fitness facility that “uses technology to help members reach their highest level of physical, cognitive and cellular performance,” they offer EEG brain training and treatments, such as Theta Delight, to hack and induce meditative states.

In general, more researchers are exploring how tDCS, where electrodes are placed on your forehead to deliver mild positive and negative shocks to your brain, could help with many neurological or psychological issues—whether depression, insomnia or Parkinson’s disease. And they’re studying how it could make meditation easier and deeper, such as increasing electrical activity in the insula while dialing it down in the default mode network. The thesis: brain stimulation + meditation = much more effective meditation. And we’ll see more devices/headsets deploy transcranial direct current stimulation, like Swedish start-up Flow that connects to an app that supports meditation.

You will see more wellness resorts using EEG technology and transcranial magnetic stimulation to optimize brains, reduce stress, and create blissed out meditative states, such as SHA Wellness Resort’s new “cognitive enhancement therapy” and at Six Senses Place coming to NY this year.

Forecasting the Future

  • Now that meditation has been thoroughly app-ified, with new platforms spawning, it’s creating a new consumer expectation of endless “meditations,” the kind of programming we’re used to from Netflix or Spotify. Competition and creative differentiation will only increase.
  • Experiences combining music, frequencies, tones and vibrations will keep rising; immersive sonic experiences look to be the “new” guided meditations.
  • To make the experience more human and less cold, more meditation apps will let us tap into real instructors giving real classes in real time, with other real people tuned in along with us.

This is an excerpt from the “Meditations Go Plural” trend in the 2019 Global Wellness Trends Report.

This is an excerpt from the TRENDIUM, a bi-weekly communication exploring the wellness trends identified in the Global Wellness Trends Reports.

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