Unless you're listening to "Dark Side of the Moon" on your smartphone, it's hard to see them as devices for relaxation. More often, they're for aggressive thumb-tapping, Angry-Birding exercises.
But for every yin there is a yang. And mobile phones are no exception.
A path to a quiet mind can travel through apps dedicated to guided meditation and sleep enhancement. And fortunately, for those who need more, or better, rest, or who are inclined to still their minds for a few minutes a day, some good ones exist on all the major mobile platforms.
Simply Being ($1 on Apple, Android and BlackBerry) and Mindfulness Meditation ($2 on Apple, with an Android version in the works) are among the better ones, while Universal Breathing - Pranayama Free (free on Apple) and Pranayama Free (on Android) are useful for those who want to test the waters.
Those with pressing insomnia issues should consider Pzizz Sleep ($6 on Apple, with a Lite version for $2). On Android, the app costs $5.69 and goes by the name Pzizz, the Insomnia Solution. Another good, but pricey, option, is Mayo Clinic Insomnia Wellness Solutions ($25 on Apple).
The meditation apps, though, may well be enough to get you to sleep — or at least help calm you down.
Pranayama Free is the simplest. It leads you through exercises meant to limit you to seven breaths per minute, five breaths per minute, or about four breaths per minute. When I tried it, the graphics were helpful, but the music was a tad obtrusive.
A bigger problem was that it was slow to load and not very responsive to the touch (at least on my Droid2), so it was barely more relaxing than frustrating.
I tried Simply Being not long after in the middle of a workday that had gone haywire. I was surrounded by email-toting gadgets that, I was sure, were loading important messages from colleagues.
I grabbed my iPhone and opened Simply Being, and the screen offered four options for "guided meditation for relaxation and presence." I chose the 5-minute option, and left the 10-, 15- and 20-minute options for another day.
I then chose music, rather than nature sounds, to accompany the narrative, and I tweaked the volume of each so the narrative was clearly audible.
I was braced for a narrator who had the sort of whispery, saccharine tone that's as relaxing as a Sawzall on a steel pipe, but fortunately, the narrator, Mary Maddux, used an approach that didn't sound like a parent cooing a baby to sleep.
Maddux's husband and co-developer of the app, Richard Maddux, composed the admirable soundtrack.
After five minutes I was nearly asleep.
Not everyone will respond to a given narrator's voice, so another good choice is Mindfulness Meditation, which is written and narrated by Stephan Bodian, the author of "Meditation for Dummies."
Bodian's narrative was thorough, relaxing and well pitched for a meditation novice like me. There is no music or sound accompaniment, but there is more content to the app than in Simply Being.
Users can choose meditations of 5, 10, 15, 20 and 30 minutes, or a simpler relaxation narrative of 10 minutes.
A guide also offers audio tips for finding the best meditation position, for instance, and there is a text-based checklist of eight factors to improve the experience.
About an hour after nearly falling asleep to Maddux's voice, I did the same with Bodian's voice.
That drowsiness was partly due to a bout of insomnia the previous night. Lying awake at 3 a.m., I tried Brain Wave ($2 on Apple), which features binaural electronic tones against the backdrop of nature sounds. According to the app's description, it requires earbuds or earphones to work properly.
Brain Wave, which has attracted good ratings from iTunes users, also has programs for easing anxiety, improving mental focus and the like, but I chose the option "Deep Sleep." It wasn't very practical because I couldn't lay my head to either side or the earbuds would jam into my ear.
Either because of that, or because the binaural sounds simply didn't work for me, I felt no closer to sleep after 45 minutes. I turned off the program, pulled out the earbuds and later managed to get to sleep.
Another option is Pzizz Sleep, which uses binaural sounds, spoken words and music in new combinations each time the user opens the app. It's a smart choice for those who tend to grow weary of repeated narrations on other apps.
The Mayo clinic app is generally good, as well. Given how much money insomniacs spend on other treatment options, it is arguably worth the $25 investment.
That's especially true for iPad users. The app is split between a multipage stress assessment and roughly 90 minutes of videos, and the videos, especially, render nicely on the iPad's screen. (Free tip: It's a myth that exercising before bedtime will help you fall asleep more easily.)
For the price, though, users should be able to expect an experience that is devoid of fluff. Although many of the video tutorials are useful, including an in-depth discussion of insomnia by Mayo Clinic specialists, far too much video is devoted to a promotion of the app's developer and the Mayo Clinic.
It's anyone's guess, for instance, why insomniacs would need to watch a testimonial from a mother whose son was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at the Mayo Clinic.
It's enough to make you mad — that is, if you weren't already in full command of your emotions.
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