What if there was an app that could help you reduce stress, increase your attention span, boost your immunity, sleep better, forgive more easily, appreciate life and those around you more, be more creative, be more happy, and get more done? Sounds too good to be true, right? But there is an app for that - it’s called Headspace. This isn’t an exaggeration or woo-woo pseudoscience stuff either; this is the real deal backed by many years of research and confirmed by recent advancements in neuroimaging. And despite how relatively new Headspace is, it is simply a tool to guide the user in a practice that has actually been around for thousands of years - mindfulness meditation.
In today’s world, everyone could use more time for his or herself, and less time for stress. Mindfulness meditation activates the “rest and digest” part of our nervous system, as opposed to the “fight or flight” mode we experience so often nowadays. This helps slow down the heart rate and respiration, decrease blood pressure, and reduce cortisol and adrenaline levels. Mindfulness also promotes “divergent thinking”, allowing more new ideas to be generated while filtering out other mental processes during creative tasks. If you’re interested in improving your focus and self control, you’ll be happy to know that neuroscientists have found that after just 11 hours of meditation, structural changes occur in the part of the brain regulating those tasks.
As stated in a research article published in Scientific American, “About 15 years of research have done more than show that meditation produces significant changes in both the function and structure of the brains in experienced practitioners. These studies are now starting to demonstrate that contemplative practices may have a substantive impact on biological processes critical for physical health.” Researchers have found that meditation can literally change the structure of your brain tissue (neuroplasticity). Using MRIs, you can see a greater volume of brain tissue in the prefrontal cortex, the region largely responsible for processing attention, sensory information, and internal bodily sensations.
Sara W. Lazar of Harvard University and her colleagues “showed that mindfulness training decreased the volume of the amygdala, a region involved in fear processing” and “some evidence even exists that meditation - and its ability to enhance overall well-being - may diminish inflammation and other biological stresses that occur at the molecular level.” Meditators also show higher telomerase activity which, in a nutshell, might slow down aging at a cellular level. So on top of reduced levels of stress and anxiety, increased focus and flow, more creativity and happiness...meditation can help you stay healthy day by day and live longer?! It sounds like it’s the key to unlocking your full potential, gaining superhuman powers, and discovering your inner greatness. And that’s exactly what it feels like.
You don’t need to shave your head, wear a robe, move to a monastery, or sell your earthly possessions to practice meditation. I think many people have that stigma about meditation and associate it with being a religious practice. Until recently, I didn’t picture myself being the type of person to have a daily meditation practice. I have definitely been someone that cares about his health, performance, and overall well-being for quite sometime now. I have been eating healthy and going to the gym regularly for many years, and getting plenty of high-quality sleep has become extremely important to me. I am constantly adding, adjusting, and maintaining many healthy habits in my life to help me look, feel, and perform my best. But less than a year ago, I discovered this holy grail of wellness and self-improvement practices.
I can’t recall the first person who mentioned Headspace to me, but I can remember multiple health experts, neuroscientists, professional athletes, and many other people I look up to mention meditation and all its benefits. From listening to hundreds of hours of podcast interviews, reading countless articles, and reading many books all from these types of high performers, there is one thing almost all of them have in common: some sort of meditative and reflective practice that they do on a daily basis, generally early in their day. Many swear it’s the key to their success and their most important daily habit, and a lot of them shared that Headspace was their preferred tool of the trade. Headspace opened the doors of meditation for me, started me on my path of mindfulness, and is still like a personal trainer for my brain today.
As I explained in my article on Starting Your Day for Better Sleep (Sleep Better Now - Part 1), the most important part of my morning ritual is my daily meditation. My practice is 15 minutes, but the app will let you choose 10 minutes, 20 minutes, or more. It’s one of the first things I do when I wake up - before I take my phone out of airplane mode or even make my coffee - and it allows me to start the day on my terms. I used to be a slave to my phone, keeping it within arm’s reach of my bed and checking it right before falling asleep, checking it first thing upon rising, and even checking it if I woke up in the middle of the night. I would be refreshing my emails before I had even fully opened my eyes, but that is no longer the case. Now, I spend the first part of every day focusing on my breathing, being present, and sitting in silence with my head clear, which gets me more focused and energized for each day more than ever before.
One of the things I like best about Headspace is that it gives you different packs to choose from after you complete the 30 day foundation series. The foundation series is an amazing and easy way for anyone to get started on this journey, and each day builds upon the last. So far, I have completed the stress pack, focus pack, creativity pack, relationships pack, happiness pack, and change pack since completing the foundation series, and I still have plenty more to choose from. The packs are generally 30 days in length, building off the foundation series and themselves each day, while their exercises vary depending on the theme. These exercises include different breathing techniques, visualization techniques, and monitoring of internal thoughts and feelings. It is really something you have to experience first hand to truly understand and appreciate.
In addition to the packs, there are singles to explore as well. These include the SOS singles for those times when you’re feeling overwhelmed and need some help finding calm and clarity in a situation. There are also singles on sleeping, eating, walking, running, commuting, and even cooking. I really enjoy the On-the-Go sleeping session for those rare nights when I’m having trouble falling asleep. Andy, the creator and voice of Headspace, will lull you to sleep within minutes in that one. There are also one-off classic meditation sessions, both guided and unguided, that range from 10 to 60 minutes.
Another great feature of Headspace is that it gives you a timeline of your journey and keeps you updated on your progress. At the time of this writing, I have spent a total of over 2,800 minutes meditating over 188 sessions. As you use the app consistently, you earn run streaks by not missing days. After a certain number of days without missing a session, Headspace rewards you with a promo code to gift to someone so they can try it for an extended period of time. If you have any friends or family that are also on Headspace, there is a Buddies section so you can see each other’s progress and keep each other motivated. The app also (optionally) pushes daily reminders to your phone’s notification center to remind you to stay mindful, give inspirational advice, or keep you motivated with your practice. They also have a program where they give a free membership to someone else in need when you sign up for yours.
If you haven’t been able to tell by now, Headspace is a paid service. The app is free, and the first 10 days (Part 1 of the Foundation series) are free to give it a try (unless you have a friend who has a promo code they can share with you for an extended trial); but for full access, you must pay for an annual subscription. Originally, this was a big turn-off for me - so much so that I almost didn’t try the free Take 10 trial. But I was so intrigued by all that I had heard about meditation, the app, and its creator, Andy, that I had to give it a shot. Thank goodness I did. I was immediately hooked and have been a believer and advocate ever since.
The cost is very small when broken down day by day and taking into consideration all you get out of it. At less than $8 per month (when you pay for a full year at once), it’s cheaper than a gym membership and cheaper than a trip to Whole Foods, or even a meal for that matter. Plus, it’s for arguably the most important part of your body. I decided to invest in my brain, in my health, in myself, and I have been encouraging my friends and family to do the same since I started using it.
For the record, I am not paid or sponsored by Headspace in any way. The app and practice that have become such an important part of my life have affected me so deeply that I feel compelled to share this with other people. I love telling people close to me how much I have benefitted from meditation in the hopes that they will try it out. I have even gifted a year’s subscription to someone dear to me who I knew would get a lot out of it. I believe that if more people made this practice a part of their lives, we would be living in an all-around better world.
Since meditation is a practice that spans back thousands of years, there are obviously other ways than Headspace of developing your own practice. In fact, there are several different types of meditation, from transcendental to mindfulness (the latter has been the focus of this article). You could seek out a trained teacher to guide you in person, a different app or website, online videos (paid and free), and even free podcasts. However, I have found Headspace to be the most beneficial, motivating, and easy to embrace in my life, and it is worth every second and penny I’ve invested into it. So whether it’s through Headspace or some other medium, treat yourself to some quiet, personal time to clear your head each and every day, and watch your life become healthier, happier, and more enjoyable.