“I suck at meditation.”
Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., a psychologist and creator of the Mindful Living Collective, has heard multiple covers of that classic tune, and he says it’s natural to feel like it’s difficult at first. Goldstein likens learning to meditate to riding a bike. “When you practice over time, it gets easier,” he says. Just as you owned your neighborhood once you got the hang of pedaling, meditation, Goldstein says, “allows you to gain more confidence around managing your stress and emotions” over time.
Another key point to understand? Meditating is not designed to stop your natural thinking process. “The idea of us being able to magically stop our thoughts from happening isn’t realistic,” says Josephine Atluri, a certified meditation instructor. Instead, acknowledge the thought, let it go, and return to your breath.
By focusing on your breathing, Atluri says it will ground you back to the present moment. “It’s all practice, and that helps us as we leave the meditation and go out into life,” she adds.
What are the benefits of meditation?
For starters, meditation has been shown to mitigate the health effects of stress on your body. While research is ongoing, various styles of meditation can help lessen pain, lower blood pressure, and dial down anxiety and depression, according to the National Institutes for Health. And a Harvard study found that folks who meditated around 20 minutes showed “significant, beneficial results in as little as eight weeks,” says Josh Korda, a meditation guide, podcaster, and author of Unsubscribe. Even as little as five minutes of controlled breathing “can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn reduces the symptoms of stress and our serum cortisol levels, lifting our mood and strengthening our immune system,” he says.
How can beginners learn to meditate?
That’s easy: apps with guided meditations and/or peaceful music. “I’d highly recommend individuals who are starting a practice listen to guided meditations rather than practice in silence,” says Korda. “That invariably results in mind wandering and increasing stress, rather than reducing it.”
Below, Prevention Magazine curated a list of the best meditation apps to try:
Korda, Goldstein, and every expert we spoke to gave this one a big thumbs up. “When I am suggesting it to clients, the fact that it’s free is a really good perk for someone who’s just starting out and doesn’t want to sign on any dotted line,” explains Andrea Wachter, a licensed therapist and author of several books. Meditation teacher Lodro Rinzler, author of The Buddha Walks into a Bar and Love Hurts: Buddhist Advice for the Heartbroken, adds that “it cultivates a sense of community.” Indeed, you can send messages to other users and read reviews of 15,000 meditations of all styles. If that sounds overwhelming, it’s not, says Wachter. Insight Timer features “really user-friendly ways to search out recordings based on length and topics of interest,” she says.
Cost: FREE, or upgrade for $4.99/month
Filled with soothing, guided meditation—from breathing exercises to body scans—Headspace makes living mindfully extremely approachable, especially if you’re trying it for the first time. It even has courses to teach you what meditation is all about with basic exercises that run for 3-5 minutes (you get to choose how long you want to stay)! Atluri says her first experience with meditation was with the Headspace app. “I love how user-friendly it is,” she says. “When you have something laid out so nicely like this, it makes it a lot easier to try it out.” The app also has fun graphics and a clean aesthetic that makes it truly unique from the competition.
Cost: FREE for up to 2 weeks, or upgrade for $12.99/month or $69.99/year
Rinzler also loves this meditation app because “they have really thoughtfully curated their teachers,” he says. There are 50 or so veteran instructors with different backgrounds (you’ll find Zen Buddhist monks alongside child psychologists and addiction recovery specialists) so you can pick the voice that speaks to you best, or mix it up. “In my experience, meditation becomes a daily practice when it feels relevant to our lives,” says Chrissy Carter, a yoga and meditation instructor, who (along with Rinzler and Goldstein) is one of the teachers. With themed groupings (meditations for life transitions, for instance, or compassion) and for specific groups (veterans and children, to name two), “you can practice in a way that meets you where you are,” she says. You can also use the timer feature and listen to instrumental music or nature sounds.
Cost: FREE for first 10 sessions, or upgrade for $7.99/month or $49.99/year
The tagline for this app is “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.” You know who you are! What Rinzler likes about this app is its full courses, so you can “go on a journey with a particular teacher,” if you find one you love. Created by the bestselling positive psychology writer Dan Harris, this app has a real-world, non woo-woo vibe to it. “They also have a ‘coach’ function where you can ask a live human any questions that arise during your meditation path,” says Rinzler.
Download it for: iPhone and Android
Cost: FREE for first 7 days, or upgrade for $9.99/month or $99.99/year
Whether you’re curious about meditation or are looking for a new app to try, Simple Habit is a wonderful choice that we seem to go back to again and again. The app makes meditating extremely customizable, giving you meditation sessions geared to your interests, with plans that focus on stress management, anxiety, sleep, positivity, and even eating. One of our favorite features is the on-the-go meditation sessions, allowing you to get some peace while taking a break at work, during your commute, or right before bed.
Cost: FREE, or upgrade for $11.99/month or $89.99/year
Unplug Meditation started as drop-in studio classes before expanding into an app for anyone to download and enjoy. Atluri, who trained at an Unplug studio to get her meditation certification, says she loves this app because of its curated library and wide selection of teachers. “There’s so many different instructors who are on the app, so you can get a feel for other styles,” Atluri says, “and find what suits you.”
Cost: FREE, or upgrade for $7.99/month or $59.99/year
MNDFL aims to bring the meditation community to you! And they offer a wide range of sessions. “We have one-minute quick fix videos up to full, 30-minute sits,” says Ellie Burrows Gluck, a meditation teacher and MNDFL co-founder (Rinzler, also a co-founder, is in many of the videos). Teachers at MNDFL come from varying backgrounds, such as Tibetan Buddhist and Shambhala, so you can try them all and see if you want to take a deeper dive into a style that works for you.
Download it for: iPhone
Cost: FREE for first 2 weeks, or upgrade for $14.99/month
Some experts believe it’s better to meditate to an anonymous voice rather than a known instructor. If this sounds right to you, then Simply Being is perfect. A soothing female voice will talk you through a relaxing meditation that encourages you to “simply be.” You can customize your session between 5-30 minutes, and add music or ambient sounds as well. It’s particularly good for low-tech types who get stressed by too many bells and whistles, or who don’t want to pay a subscription fee.