How Headspace app made one sceptical Hongkonger a convert to meditation
It felt like an atomic bomb went off in my head, the mushroom cloud of smoke lingering thick and heavy over me. Wherever I went and whatever I did, it was there, choking me. After a few days I decided I needed help. I needed Andy Puddicombe.
So I reached for my phone. I had resisted getting in touch since we met a few weeks earlier in Hong Kong because meditation - Puddicombe's expertise - always seemed weird and a bit woo-hoo to me, not to mention that I never quite identified with its spiritual undertones. But desperate times call for desperate measures.
"Just begin by taking some deep breaths, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. No matter how stressed you're feeling, just allow thoughts and feelings to come and go. Focus on the breath," says Puddicombe, whose voice could calm a raging bull.
"Remember, the more we're able to step back and get a little bit of space between ourselves and the feeling, the more we're going to be able to unwind the situation."
After a few minutes of guided deep breathing and being present by focusing on an isolated physical sensation, I opened my eyes. The dark cloud had dispersed, at least for now.
Through Headspace, an app he co-founded in 2012, Puddicombe's mindfulness practice has touched some 2.7 million people in 150 countries. A few weeks ago he and co-founder Richard Pierson made their first trip to Hong Kong to officially launch the app here.
With my first taste of Headspace I now understood its popularity. Puddicombe, a Bristol-born former monk, has managed to make meditation accessible to the masses, separating the practice from hippy-ness or religion.
Headspace's audio sessions - which range from two to 60 minutes and cover topics such as health, relationships and performance - simply try to help you be more conscious and in control of your thoughts, rather than "reach a higher state of consciousness" or "nirvana" that ancient meditation practices are always preaching.
It felt a lot to me like the pre-competition relaxation and visualisation sessions I had with the sports psychologist back in my varsity days. With Headspace, however, Puddicombe is my personal instructor in my pocket.
"Our mission is to improve the health and happiness of the world. We believe the most effective way to achieve this mission is to help more people meditate more often," says Pierson, who calls Headspace "a gym membership for the mind".
The app was developed out of the pair's personal enlightenment through meditation - though via quite different routes.
In 1994, following a series of unexpected deaths among family and friends, a twenty-something Puddicombe made the sudden decision to interrupt his university studies to travel to the Himalayas to study meditation instead.
There, he meditated for 18 hours a day - nine hours walking and nine hours sitting, changing activity every hour at the ring of a bell. The rest of day, he had an hour each at 5am for breakfast and 11am for lunch, half an hour for washing up, and three-and-a-half hours of sleep.
In 2004, Puddicombe took off his robes and returned to normal life, because he was determined to free meditation from its religious trappings and share it with the stressed-out masses.
"You can meditate whether you're working in an office or living on top of a mountain, but it's quite difficult when you're a bald headed guy in a purple skirt to convince your family and friends," says Puddicombe. "Taking the robes off was an immediate way to convince them."
A year later, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy - of which meditation is core - became a recommended treatment for depression and other conditions by Britain's National Health Service. So Puddicombe got qualified and, in 2006, started a private clinical practice, where he met Pierson two years later.
Pierson had just left his advertising job due to stress. Meditation had such a profound effect on Pierson's life so quickly that he wondered why more people weren't doing it.
Although people were becoming more health conscious and treating their bodies better, "people didn't take the time to look after the health of the mind", he says.
So Pierson and Puddicombe founded Headspace in London in 2010 as an events company offering group meditation sessions around the city. In 2012, the app was launched to reach a wider audience.
Back then, says Pierson, people thought they were crazy. These days, millions of people - from the man on the street to celebrities to CEOs - buy into Headspace's message.
Users - defined as paid subscribers or those who try out the free 10-day introductory series - are growing by 20 per cent month on month, just through word of mouth and editorials, Pierson claims.
The app's cool and colourful graphics and fun, easy-to-use interface help, but ultimately it's the more than 300 hours of science-backed content, entirely voiced by Puddicombe, that's made it so successful.
Paying users - subscriptions start at US$12.95 per month - get access to all the content. There are special series collections that come in packs of 10 to 30 sessions, each focusing on unique topics such as sleep, acceptance and balance. There are also singles such as three-minute SOS sessions that cater to those suffering from sudden meltdowns.
Pierson says their 10-minute sessions are the most popular, and most people use the app three to four times a week. The age range of users is evenly spread out from 18 to 75, with the 25-to-45 age group taking a slight lead. Forty-six per cent of users are male.
For every subscription purchased, Headspace donates one to someone in need through its charitable partners.
The app's broad appeal has no doubt been helped by a growing body of scientific research and increasing awareness in recent years on the myriad benefits of mindfulness training (see sidebar below).
Expect Headspace to work with wearable self-tracking devices soon, says Pierson. And more user-requested content will be released, on topics such as pregnancy, sport and children.
"The lofty mission for the product is to create a smart application that instinctively knows to recommend each user with the perfect content at the time when they need it most," says Pierson.
Puddicombe recommends people meditate to start the day.
"Do it in the same place at the same time. You'll leave home feeling calmer and are more likely to be mindful during the day," he says.
Headspace's goal, Pierson adds, is to get the content to billions of people. "We'll be happy if people sat down to meditate for 10 minutes in just the same way they think about brushing their teeth."
MINDFULNESS IS THE MESSAGE
Regular mindfulness meditation has been shown to be an effective treatment for stress, worry, lack of focus, relationship problems, addictions and more. Here is some of the recent scientific evidence supporting many of these claims.
Mindfulness meditation practices resulted in improved sleep quality for older adults with moderate sleep disturbance, in a study by the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, published in February in JAMA Internal Medicine.
In the study, which included 49 people with an average age of 66, participants who went through a standardised mindful awareness practices intervention showed greater sleep quality improvements compared to those who were put through a more structured programme focusing on changing poor sleep habits and establishing a bedtime routine.
When we are stressed, activity in a part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex - responsible for conscious thinking and planning - decreases. Concurrently, activity in the amygdala, hypothalamus and anterior cingulate cortex - regions that quickly activate the body's stress response - increases.
According to Carnegie Mellon University psychology professor J. David Creswell, studies suggest that mindfulness reverses these patterns during stress: it increases prefrontal activity, which can regulate and turn down the biological stress response.
Risks of diseases such as depression, HIV and heart disease are all affected by the excessive activation of the biological stress response. By reducing a person's experiences of stress, mindfulness may, in turn, regulate the physical stress response and reduce the risk and severity of stress-related diseases, says Creswell.
A Brown University study that appears in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine found those who self-reported "dispositional mindfulness" tended to have better cardiovascular health.
The connection, the researchers say, may come about because people who are attuned to their present feelings may be better at minding and managing the various cravings that undermine health. For example, previous studies have shown mindfulness interventions are effective in helping people to quit smoking.
Fourth and fifth graders in Canada who participated in a mindfulness-based programme performed better at maths, according to a study by the University of British Columbia. Apart from improving their learning abilities, the children were also better at regulating stress, more optimistic and helpful.
Compared to children taught about caring for others but without a mindfulness component, the mindfulness group were found to be better liked by their peers.
"Our findings suggest that children who are taught mindfulness are better positioned to succeed both in school and in life," says lead author Kimberly Schonert-Reichl.