Help make yours an appy Christmas

If the holiday season provokes more anguish than excitement, take your mobile meditation guide wherever you go

23 December 2018 - 00:01 By NIKKI EKSTEIN


In recent years, studies have found that 68% of us find the festive season exhausting, and up to 37% of us will be so overwhelmed by that stress that we'll actually cancel or delay our related travel plans. (Those visiting relatives who like to prod with personal questions may represent a large chunk of the latter group.)
But this year you can pack a therapist to take with you as you head out for the holidays. There's been a surge in mindfulness and meditation apps - with nearly 3,500 different options on offer.
The sheer number of apps can make deciding which one to use too stressful to begin with. So we put Apple and Google's best-performing, highest-rated apps to the test - along with some notable newcomers - starting with free versions and then moving into paid subscriptions.
Here are the ones that'll get you through the most wonderful time of the year, even if that's not how you'd describe it at all.
IF YOU'RE A SCIENTIFICALLY MINDED SCEPTIC WITH POLITICALLY CHARGED RELATIVES
The app 10% Happier, from best-selling author Dan Harris, includes not just meditation techniques - such as noting and naming your emotions to create distance from them - but also interviews and sessions led by academic experts.
What it costs: the initial download and seven "basics" lessons ("Clearing your Mind", "Respond, not React" and "Finding the Time") are free. So is one daily piece of content that follows a broad theme, such as forgiveness; the rest of the 350-plus meditations cost $99 (about R1,400) a year.
Why we like it: "Courses" focus on big-picture skills such as mindful eating by providing more than a dozen relevant lessons from a single expert, who acts like your professor. There are also individual, expert-led classes such as "Singles", which offer quick fixes on common themes such as stress and relationships. Two good Singles themes for the holidays: how to skilfully handle tough conversations, and dealing with difficult people.
IF YOU'RE TERRIFIED OF FLYING - AND HATE YOUR CO-WORKERS
Despite the name, Buddhify has a straightforward, practical and not at all spiritual approach to meditation, categorising meditations based on situations when you might need them, whether that's on a plane or at the office.
What it costs: $4.99 to download.
Why we like it: Buddhify's modules are situational, with themes that include "Work break" or "Travelling" or "Stress and difficult emotions". One workplace-oriented unit might help you identify your "stress signature" or early physical signs such as jaw tension that can warn you that stress is building up in your body. Another, for nervous flyers, focuses on grounding thoughts (like the fact that your body is still inside a tube that's shooting through the sky) and finding balance in the midst of movement and commotion. Sessions range in length from four to 20 minutes, and since you pay for the product upfront, you're not bombarded with offers to upgrade.
However, the app is particularly data-heavy, which means that you can download new content only via a reliable Wi-Fi connection.
IF YOU JUST WANT TO TAKE A MOMENT TO BREATHE
Headspace, with 30-million users across all platforms, helped make meditation mainstream.
What it costs: all the basic lessons are free, then it's $12.99 a month or $95 a year.
Why we like it: Headspace founder Andy Puddicombe is a fascinating individual: halfway through college, he decided to decamp for the Himalayas and become ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Then he joined the circus in Moscow before moving back to London and resuming a "normal" life. You won't hear any of these stories on the app, but he does narrate every meditation personally, which makes you feel like you're studying with a master and getting to know him as a friend.
What we'd change: the lessons tend to move slowly - sometimes painfully so. And what the app calls "five minute" sessions often take closer to seven.
IF YOU WANT TO TAP INTO THE NEXT MILLENNIAL LIFESTYLE CRAZE
Happy Not Perfect is built around a quick, seven-step "Refresh" routine that helps you breathe, take stock of your emotions, and focus on positive thinking. A recent update multiplied the app's content and added "Daily Dose" meditations to the free app, along with mindfulness-oriented games that help you zone out (productively) anywhere.
What it costs: the app's best features are free, but unlocking games and the full range of content requires a subscription. Premium access will run to $6.66 a month.
Why we like it: a "Refresh" takes only a few minutes to leave you feeling you've lightened your emotional load. Its exercises might prompt you to express gratitude by writing down your thoughts or drawing a picture, and then all these things are categorised and saved for future reference, so you can reflect back on what makes you truly happy, or what you might need to work on.
IF YOU WANT CELEBRITIES TO SOOTHE YOU BEFORE BEDTIME
Calm is a no-frills, free app that gives way to smart premium content, with timely topics that span from "Social Media and Screen Addiction" to "Seven Days of Gratitude". The app's best features are geared towards night-time, with meditations that help you unwind, video tutorials on gentle stretching, and bedtime stories to help you fall asleep.
What it costs: try it free for seven days, then pony up $70 a year.
Why we like it: Matthew McConaughey can read you a favourite tale. Elizabeth Gilbert can give you the "pray" part of Eat, Pray, Love. The painter Bob Ross can help you drift off to dreamland with his series of sleep stories.
What we'd change: the free version of the app feels too basic, even cheesy - meditations come with background sounds such as jungle rain, and narrators sound exactly like the clichéd instructors you'd imagine - so much so that we were reluctant to pony up for the premium app. But the celebrity voices and fun array of locked content persuaded us otherwise.
IF ALL YOU WANT IS A FREE APP
A curated library of meditation, breathing, and bedtime routines is available from Oak and gives you the building blocks you need to forge a few key skills and then practise them with the help of soothing visuals and sounds - guided or unguided.
What it costs: free, free, free.
Why we like it: sometimes what you need is a little boost to get started with a meditation practice. - Bloomberg

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