meditation apps

A couple of weeks back, I mentioned that I might want to write a blog post comparing Insight Timer and Calm. I was primarily using Insight Timer (the free version) for meditation last year, but I switched to Calm this year, since I got a free one-year premium subscription, via an AmEx promotion.

In general, I’ve been sticking with my meditation practice this year, though I’ve only been doing ten minutes a day, five days a week. That’s pretty similar to what I was doing last year, though I wasn’t always that consistent. I’d skip days if I got too busy at work, or if I just wasn’t in the mood.

With Insight Timer, I was mostly just using the timer function. I did occasionally try a guided meditation. Insight Timer has a ton of guided meditations available (over 50,000), most of which are available even for non-paying users. And I tried a few of their live events too (which are also available to everyone). I found a few instructors I liked, including Hugh Byrne and Joseph Goldstein. Overall, I didn’t really have any reason to switch away from Insight Timer. I was just curious about Calm.

With Calm, I’ve generally been doing the “Daily Calm with Tamara Levitt” meditations. Levitt is their “Head of Mindfulness” and the Daily Calm is a daily ten-minute guided meditation. I’m not sure if they’re actively creating new ones every day, or if they have a set of them that they cycle through. Either way, I haven’t heard the same one twice since I started. They’re pretty straightforward and not too “woo-woo” (if you know what I mean). They generally just concentrate on breathing and reinforcing the basics of meditation and mindfulness.

They also have a new series called The Daily Trip with Jeff Warren that started up about a month ago. I listened to one of those, out of curiosity, but I’ve been sticking with the Levitt ones. At some point, if I get a little more ambitious, I might try doing the Levitt ones during the day and the Warren ones in the evening, and see how that works out.

Calm also has a library of miscellaneous guided meditations, though I don’t think they have nearly as many as Insight Timer. I think that their selection is more “curated”, whereas Insight Timer lets just about anybody sign up as an instructor and start posting meditations.

When I started using Calm, I was kind of surprised to find that they didn’t have a simple timer, like Insight Timer does. I did eventually find one, though it’s buried in their app (under the “less guidance” category) and isn’t as functional as the Insight Timer one.

Both Calm and Insight Timer have been doing celebrity meditations, which I’m not terribly interested in. Calm has LeBron James. Insight Timer has Gisele Bündchen. Personally, I’d rather have a trained meditation teacher rather than a basketball player or a supermodel, but that’s just me.

Both platforms also have music. I don’t really see much value in this, and I can get plenty of ambient music elsewhere, but it’s kind of interesting to see what they’re doing. Insight Timer has a fairly odd selection of stuff from artists you probably haven’t heard of. Some of it is pretty good though. Calm has some pretty well-known artists in their music library, including Moby, deadmau5, and Sigur Rós. Though, again, I don’t know why you’d want to listen to this stuff in your meditation app rather than your music app.

And both apps also have gotten into the sleep stories trend (and other sleep-related audio). Calm has stories narrated by Stephen Fry, Matthew McConaughey, and Keith Urban. Insight Timer has an eclectic collection of sleep stories, talks, and music, but no big celebrity sleep content, as far as I can tell. (The sleep tracking app I use, Sleep Cycle, also has some sleep stories, though I haven’t tried them.) There’s an interesting article in the NY Times, from 2019, about Calm and their sleep-related content here. I haven’t really tried out the sleep stuff at all. Maybe I should give it a shot, one of these days.

In general, I’d say that, if you’re new to meditation, and don’t mind paying for Calm (or can get it for free like I did), it’s not a bad deal. I don’t place much value on the celebrity content, but the regular daily meditation content is pretty good. Since I’d already been meditating for a few years (on and off) when I started with Calm, I didn’t bother checking out their beginner content, but it’s probably pretty good. If you’d rather go with a free app, Insight Timer has some good content for beginners, including their Learn How To Meditate In Seven Days course, which is free. They also have a free 40-day course called Mindfulness Daily At Work, which I did last year, and it’s really good. (Their other courses generally require a premium subscription.)

If you’re an experienced meditator, and you just need a timer, then the free version of Insight Timer should be fine for you. If you’re looking for a wide range of guided meditations, then, again, Insight Timer is great (though you may need to wade through some mediocre ones to find the good ones). If you’re experienced, but looking for some professional, high-quality, guided meditations, and you don’t mind paying for a subscription, then Calm is a good choice. Likewise, if you’re experienced and don’t mind paying for a subscription, but you’re looking for a good selection of courses, then the premium version of Insight Timer might be best for you. (Hope that’s not too confusing.)

For myself, I’m going to stick with Calm this year, for the most part. I may go back to Insight Timer occasionally if I just want to do a simple timed meditation, or if I want to try out one of their live events. And I keep trying to talk myself into meditating seven days a week instead of just on weekdays. But I keep getting distracted with other stuff on the weekend.

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