Headspace? Insight Timer? – Sorry, I’m Not a Fan
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | October 7, 2022
The first thing I want to say is if you love Headspace, Insight Timer, Calm or of any of the other 2500 meditation apps out there then…who am I to steal your joy? Let’s stay friends. Stop reading now, have fun, and I’ll catch up with you next week.
It’s not that meditation apps aren’t useful – of course they are – many people swear by them. But, when you shine the light of yoga philosophy on the topic, there are a couple of fundamental problems – beyond things like coding glitches.
Meditation is ancient, apps are new – but somehow folks managed to meditate in the good old days. If you rely on apps to meditate, what happens when your phone dies, and you are in a kayak without a power source? What happens if your app gets deleted, or the developer pulls it, or the internet implodes? Does that mean your meditation practice disappears forever?
App meditation is dependent upon an external source, and so it actually misses the point of meditation – which is to use your mind to train your mind to get out of your mind. Apps can’t do that. Sure, they can help you relax, distract, and enjoy pleasant experiences, but they can’t do what your mind can, because they are not a part of the structure of you.
According to the yoga tradition, pratyāhāra, the fifth limb of yoga, is the gateway to meditation. Pratyāhāra means something like taming or quieting the senses and motor organs. There are various pratyāhāra techniques which are aimed at helping you calm the mind by turning the energy that is usually directed outward into the external world, inward towards your magnificent inner universe.
Two fundamental aspects of pratyāhāra in traditional yogic meditation are sitting still with legs crossed and hands folded to initiate the inward trajectory of the energy of the motor organs (like walking, working with your hands, etc.), and finding a quiet place where you can close your eyes (and your mouth) so that you don’t get distracted by noises, conversations, etc. and draw the energy of the senses within (of course if you have knee or hip issues, sitting in a chair is fine).
An ancient metaphor in the yoga tradition for pratyāhāra is the chariot. The senses and motor organs are like horses. Without reins they will run around, chew on some daisies, check out the river and get a drink, play with each other, and basically horse around whatever chance they get.
The mind, however, has the potential to act as reins for the chariot. And the driver of the chariot is the Buddhi, the discerning wise part of yourself that has the ability to see through the distractions in life and direct your mind towards a higher goal. The atman or unchanging, infinite awareness part of yourself is the passenger, who says, “Hey, I need to get home to my cosmic ocean of Oneness so take me there.” And basically that’s the journey that yogic meditation was developed for.
The tantric yogis would argue that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the daisies, the river, and the horsing around, as long as you remember that it’s all part of an ephemeral, passing show as you journey back to the infinite.
As for the senses, the yogis intuited sound as the most subtle and perhaps poignant of all the senses. Isn’t it interesting how sound can change everything – the body and mind can shift dramatically just by hearing a stunning piece of music, the sound of a loved one’s voice, or the pleas of a persistent cat.
When you are listening to a meditation app and someone is guiding you through a visualization, your sense of sound is fired up, that horse is not reined in. And while it can be a pleasant experience to listen to a lovely voice saying soothing things, it does not cultivate pratyāhāra – the point of which is to reverse the energy of all the external experience seeking senses and direct them towards the inner universe.
Pratyāhāra prepares for dhāraṇā, the sixth limb of yoga, which is the limb that trains the mind to concentrate. Yogis have used many techniques for dhāraṇā but probably the most famous is mantra. Mantra means “the tool (or technology) that liberates the mind.” A short mantra provides a tool to train the mind to concentrate and focus.
One researcher wrote, “…mantra aids in maintaining sharp focus of attention to the exclusion of incoming sensory stimuli and awareness of one’s own body.” (Fox, 2016) In other words mantra is a tool of focus for the mind that enhances pratyāhāra.
If you worry a lot, if you have trouble sleeping, if you spend a lot of time on what ifs, wouldn’t it be great to learn how to turn that stuff off? Apps might help in the short run, but it’s meditation old style that actually can make those important shifts happen.
Please check out my free ebook, 5 Ways Yogic Meditation Benefits Your Brain.
Fox K. C. R. Dixon M. L. Nijeboer S. Girn M. Floman J. L. Lifshitz M. Ellamil M. Sedlmeier P. & Christoff K. (2016). Functional neuroanatomy of meditation: a review and meta-analysis of 78 functional neuroimaging investigations. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 208–228. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.03.021
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Brilliant introduction to todays’ message. All is Well, and I’m thankful for how Yoga keeps my anchored to my heart.
YES! and Thank You for THIS!!
Love this. So true!!
Hi, I am a massive fan of yours, and a lover of Slow Yoga. I am also a great fan of Insight Timer – yes, I agree with what you say about learning to meditate without external devices, especially on mobiles. However I personally find that Insight Timer, a free app, is an amazing resource and a great entry point at times. I am a Yoga Teacher and long time practitioner, but I find that there are times when I need someone else to take over, as it were. For example, this week I was involved in a minor road rage incident – yes, I do have an anxiety condition, but I was able to place ‘shock’ in Insight Timer’s search, and just listened to a beautiful piece of music for 45 minutes, which gave me no end of comfort at a challenging time. I also found it very useful when I had issues with establishing a daily practice – I found the cumulative information so helpful to me, and really would not wish to be without it! A great article, though – it is refreshing to discover that I don’t agree with everything you say!! With much love and gratitude for what you do xx
yes of course there are good uses for these things – it’s just that they can only go so far. But I am certainly glad that you found an app to help you when you needed it.
Yes! Thank you again for explaining a topic so well. This is a message I’ve been trying to conjure in my own mind, especially as you point out, so many friends and clients of mine use those apps and I don’t want to offend them. Though I feel maybe the apps are a gateway to ‘old style’ meditation in their future. Another twist is how so many yoga practitioners rely on other meditation techniques (apps yes but also vipassana is a common one) thinking there isn’t anything like it in yoga.
Hey Mary Beth, Yes, I struggled here because I certainly don’t want folks to think I’m saying that apps are useless, but there are some foundational issues. and yes, there are tons of people who say they practice yoga and meditation – meanings asanas and mindfulness, vipassana, etc. I think it’s helpful to learn about the yoga tradition and how meditation is central to it!
Thank you! I have not tied any of these apps (too many others on my device already). In the effort to simplify and teach the same to my yoga classes,
nothing is needed except a willingness to be still. Though that may be challenging, as it is for me at times, the use of the breath and sacred word in mind draws us back. It can be done anywhere, no internet required.
Thank you again for sharing all of your insights.
Thank you Susan, I agree!
Forwarded your email to a friend and thought her comments were interesting – so am sharing ..
She has some valid points. However I still find value in the apps, especially the ones which use breathing techniques and or mantras then lead into silent meditation with or without music/nature sounds. I have found the practice enables me to then be able to do it more readily without the app.
I also think that visualizations for relaxation, healing, intention setting, affirmation are beneficial…..a whole different type of meditation than traditional yogic meditation…going within.
Different strokes for different folks for different reasons
Sure lots of folks like the apps and I’m not disparaging their use – I simply wanted to point out the flaws inherent in relying upon them.
Love this article! Your explanations are definitely relatable and I may use this in a class. Favorite phrase “…use your mind to train your mind to get out of your mind…”. Do agree with others that apps have a place, especially for beginning meditators. It has taken me several years of practice to be comfortable with being still and finding refuge in the stillness.
Thanks Paula and yes, they certainly are helpful for many people as I said!
Thank you! I am inspired to let go of using the app and just quietly sit! I have been meditating for years but have started relying on that outside voice. You clarified for me a question I didn’t even know I had!!!!
That’s terrific Karen – and I don’t think you have to let them go completely, as I said, Ithink they have their uses, but it’s also really nice to be able to free of them when you want to!
Preach!! This has been my song since I started hearing about apps. Is it actually meditation? Are the brainwaves
even the same? I can even betcha those gamma studies on someone 15-20 years in on an app based “practice” is not
going to have the same results, but I’m kinda old school about this part.
me too. At least the internet has given me an opportunity to meet soulmates like you – I think we will have a lot of fun IRL some day!
I definitely get your point — and I’m still a fan of guided meditations. 🙂 I also think for someone that wants to meditate & are sure that they can’t — this is a great gateway to meditation.
Personally I do guided meditations a lot — but not all the time. Sometimes I do like to just sit in nature & meditate.
I think the average person has so much trouble even trying to meditate, though, that having SO much available online is a good thing. We’ll have to agree to disagree — even if I do think what a lot of people call meditation is visualization
Sure I totally agree that guided meditations are a great gateway, I teach them myself. And I also agree that anything is better than nothing. My point is that they can’t take you to the depths of pratyahara
This is exactly what I’ve been saying to my meditation group for years! However, I think you said it better, using the limbs too yoga to assist. BNK
Loved all these comments. So good to be reminded of the value and foundation of ancient Yogic wisdom. Thank you.
Thanks Jenny, glad it was helpful for you!
I am reflecting on how many iRest yoga nidra participants experience pratyahara, dharana and dhyana from being guided by an external force. I suppose awareness has no barriers. I’d love your opinion in this Kristine.
Your post only supposes that a person that meditates either uses an app or not. I do a mixture of both. I learned meditation (more decades than I care to count) first by reading books. There was that and in person, led meditations. Then when cassettes came out, it was fun, albeit novel, to help guide me into meditation with phrases I never would have thought about on my own. And, naturally, I progressed as technology did. And, supplementing all this in groups when I could find them.
After all these years, I can meditate anywhere, with or without technology. Focusing on my breath while in the lobby at the doctor’s office, standing in a long line waiting my turn at the self-checkout, sitting on my porch watching the sunset over the Rockies. I use electronic instruments to supplement my meditation time. An instrument like, say, my piano where I can create music. But, I also don’t need an instrument to make music; I have my voice! Or, hum or even imagine music in my head.
We don’t have to, exclusively, do one or the other. We can, however, enjoy the best of all methods and still reap the benefits.
This was a very good, balanced overview of the meditative apps, and personal meditation. I do both.
In 1991 I began to realize that yoga would be my life’s healing journey (I had cancer at the time) while spending time at Kripalu.
I learned there how meditation is part of the yogic tradition.
I am, however, looking forward to your classes on meditation because I need to find a way to better integrate it with my yoga.
Also, Kristine, thank you so much for this current month of practices for boosting our “agni”. I so much appreciated your
personal story about your struggles to heal your gut dysfunction. I have been working with the Functional Medicine Dept.
at Cleveland Clinic for about 6 months.. My issue is dysbiosis, and i believe yoga can help. I am making slow progress.
Thank you Carla, I’m glad that you used apps to help you through a difficult time and that you understand that I’m not trashing meditation apps in general. I’m also glad you are working with the Cleveland clinic! I have taken my son there many times for treatment of his very rare birthmark with lasers. They are amazing! They helped him so much! I have been getting chi ni san Chinese abdominal massage and WOW! It has helped me so much. Healing is a journey for sure.
Thank you for this insightful and detailed reasoning. I’ve been conflicted often with these apps. I believe they serve a purpose but is it really meditation when you are bringing so much stimulation into the sit?
yes exactly. They certainly have value, but they are coming from a great source of distraction. It’s quite a conundrum really
I agree, Kristine. The less we can be attached to our phones (physically and psychologically), the better.
Thank you for this. I’ve been using Calm for several years now before bed, and it does get me out of my head to an extent, but lately I’ve been feeling like I need something more – like I’m not REALLY meditating. And honestly, sometimes the “voice” can get annoying (I just want her to stop talking!), and well, that just defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, I bought a “lifetime” membership to Calm a couple of years ago, but now I feel like I’ve outgrown it. But, how would you suggest someone like me should learn to meditate without relying on these apps?
Thanks for sharing about your experience. I have a course coming out soon. Please keep an eye out!