If you’re in the market for a meditation app, most likely you want just one: an app you can turn to each day with features beyond those of your phone’s built-in timer. Though the interfaces of the more than one hundred meditation apps available today may vary, many of them offer similar content. The challenge is to find one that feels right for you—a choice that is more intuitive than rational. Among the three apps reviewed here, I was surprised to find myself turning more often to Chop Wood Daily Mindfulness Challenge, a Zen-inspired wood-splitting game, than to the other two, Simple Habit and Meditation Studio. Simple Habit helps establish a daily practice through brief sessions, while Meditation Studio offers more general guided meditations and courses. Though the novelty of Chop Wood’s game-based meditation might wear off sooner or later, there’s something to be said about not taking your practice too seriously. We might do well to ask ourselves: What is the sound of one app app-ing?
CHOP WOOD DAILY MINDFULNESS CHALLENGE
($1.99; Free version, called Chop Wood Zen Master, also available)
If you need a break from the earnest instructions offered by mainstream meditation apps, Chop Wood might be just what you need to get in the swing of things. This mindfulness game isn’t the only wood-splitting app available, but it’s the only one based on a Zen proverb—“Chop wood, carry water,” a call to stay mindfully focused on the daily stuff of life. Here, your daily practice consists simply of chopping wood, via a stony-faced on-screen avatar in a Japanese-inspired landscape that syncs with local weather conditions. The practice is simple: when you swipe up from the bottom of the screen, the avatar bows and a log drops onto the chopping block. Next, you tap the screen to make the ax fall onto the log, splitting it in two. Your character starts each game with 100 percent energy, which is depleted by each chop until it reaches 0 and the game ends. The more accurately you chop, the more energy you conserve, and the more logs you can split. The game includes levels to conquer and badges to earn, but if you’re using the app to promote relaxation by focusing the mind on a single, repetitive task, these defeat the purpose. In this case, you might do better with the free version, which has ads but has no higher motive than perpetual log-splitting action. Aside from the app’s one glitch—occasionally, swiping up to produce a new log will bring up the iPhone control center—its novelty and mantra of “peace through play” offer a refreshing split from other apps.
Available for iPhone and Android
[Editor’s note: This review neglected to mention that the avatar gradually becomes less stony-faced the more you play. Also, the game’s badge system, while seemingly antithetical to a meditation game, is meant less to indicate achievement and more to indicate progression, like learning to sit for longer periods of time.]
(Free trial; $11.99/month; $8.99/month for a year; $299/lifetime)
If you have only a few minutes a day to practice, Simple Habit might be the app for you. Designed by a team of Harvard psychologists, it offers “a daily vacation for your mind” in five minutes. Its more than one thousand meditations include the usual topics (“Calm the Busy Mind,” “Open Your Heart,” “Release Fear,” “Find Happiness”) as well as situation-specific practices (“Waiting at the Airport,” “Sex Drive Boost,” “Meditation for Engineers,” “Writer’s Block”). Though the abundance of choice can be overwhelming, themed sections help you choose a category to focus on, and the app includes a beginner meditation series and a basic “Just Meditate” track. If you still can’t pick one, the app’s “On the Go” feature brings up a wheel divided into the parts of a typical day. Tap one—say, “At Work” or “Sleep”—and another wheel pops up with suggestions for that time of day. “Morning,” for example, offers meditations on improving mood and commuting. On the downside, the app takes a long time to load, and though one section is labeled “Meditation for Women,” addressing fertility, family stress, and body image, there is no corresponding collection for men (although many of these issues might pertain just as well to them). Still, this is a great app if you want brief sessions on lots of topics to jump-start a daily habit.
Available for iPhone, Android, and Web
“Untangle Your Mind” is the tagline of this app, which features tangled-doodle graphics and a subdued color scheme that will appeal to the minimalist set: no cheesy stock art here. The app’s more than 250 guided meditations are divided into two groups. “Collections” are curated, nonsequential meditation packages focused on imperative goals: “Be Healthy,” “Be Curious,” “Be Awesome,” and “Be Kind.” There is also a set of “Just for…” meditations targeting kids, teens, millennials, first responders, veterans, and moms. “Courses” are sequential meditations and lectures on three common practice topics: “Meditation Essentials,” “Uncovering Happiness,” and “Changing Habits.”
Each meditation is labeled “breath,” “body,” “visualization,” “instruction,” or “inspiration,” but for the most part the content is fairly mainstream, and the distinction between Courses and Collections is a little murky. The course “Changing Habits,” for example, contains only a few sessions that actually mention the word “habit,” and most of its sessions could fit into any of the collections or courses. Though the 30 teachers are almost all white, there’s a mix of men and women from a variety of backgrounds, including yoga teachers, artists, Zen monks and Buddhist teachers, life coaches, sleep experts, and medical doctors. There’s also a handy search function to help you find a particular topic, teacher, or duration, as well as an intriguing podcast, Untangle, which features interviews with real people telling stories of how meditation practice fits into their lives. Recent episodes feature a Google executive, an addiction specialist, the artistic director of The Moth storytelling series, and a Pulitzer Prize–winning dance critic. You can take these stories with you on the go to inspire you between formal meditation sessions.
Available for iPhone and Android
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