Is VR meditation better than the regular kind? How it can help you battle stress, anxiety and insomnia, and focus on the present moment
- VR headsets, used for immersive gaming experiences, allow you to meditate in a location of your choice
- Users describe its benefits, while experts explain why the technology may work better than traditional meditation
To the sound of calming piano music, you are transported to a wooden bench, overlooking the ocean and a deserted beach. You breathe deeply, taking in the surroundings and the calming rhythm of the waves – and focus on the present.
This is an experience of VRM – or virtual reality meditation. Slip on a headset and choose to teleport yourself to a locale of your choice.
Meditation has existed since ancient times to increase mindfulness and bring our focus to the present moment to help manage stress – a global and growing problem.
“Just 10 minutes of daily, mindful meditation can help prevent your mind from wandering, and is particularly effective if you tend to have repetitive, anxious thoughts,” according to a study from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.
The desire for meditation has led to a spate of phone meditation apps and podcasts. Virtual reality has been used as a tool by therapists for decades, but only recently, with the advent of affordable VR headsets, has it become mainstream in mental health treatment.
Supriya Aggarwal, a psychotherapist specialising in inner child healing and childhood trauma resolution in Delhi in India, uses VR in her guided meditation sessions with adult clients.
“There is a concept called mirror neurons in the brain and when we see a behaviour or experience a place, these mirror neurons fire up. This is used in VR and when you visualise something it has the same effect in the brain as when you actually experience it.
“For example, the feeling of being in the mountains through visualisation, and actually being there.”
You can choose between guided VRM, which is led by an instructor’s voice, to direct you throughout, or unguided VRM, which allows the person to take charge of their own meditation process.
“I now sleep peacefully after an evening session of this guided meditation.”
Professor Giuseppe Riva, a psychologist, is the director of the Humane Technology Lab at the Catholic University in Milan, Italy, which investigates the relationship between human experience and technology – including VR.
He is also president of the International Association of CyberPsychology, Training, and Rehabilitation – an international non-profit association designed to promote VR and other advanced technologies to complement more traditional forms of therapy and rehabilitation, and make healthcare more affordable for all.
“The main advantage of VR meditation is that, paradoxically, it is much easier than traditional meditation or mindfulness. In fact, the main problem with traditional meditation is being able to empty one’s mind of the problems of the day,” Riva says.
“VR, on the other hand, transports you into a different and stimulating world that forces us to step out of our daily routine.
“In addition, the sound and visual stimuli are designed to induce positive emotions and help us control our breathing by facilitating entry into a reflective and meditative state.”
Bangalore-based lawyer Asha Rao, 36, tried VRM four years ago for the first time after hearing about it on a visit to the United States.
“For years I have been trying to practise meditation, and was always distracted by either traffic noises or the general clutter of the household,” Rao says.
“VRM was a game changer, as it provides a cloistered environment and transports you out of your surroundings. I can fly with birds, be on a private island and soak in the tranquillity of far-off places.”
VR app Icelandic Flow uses 360-degree footage filmed in Iceland, in which you can meditate next to volcanoes, glaciers or waterfalls.
Described as an immersive platform for mental wellness in VR, Icelandic Flow harnesses the power of Icelandic nature, music from international artists like Sigur Ros, and the expert guidance and voices of meditation experts, says Tristan Elizabeth Gribbin, its co-founder.
A study published in the journal Explore in August found that “participants in VR-based mindfulness practice believed their feelings of calmness, relaxation, and peace improved, as did their general emotions and state of mindfulness”.
“Beautiful scenes, soft music and gentle audio guidance that applied in VR may help users to focus their attention on the practice,” it added.
“This suggests that VR-based mindfulness practice may help individuals maintain present-moment awareness and block distractors and may be more effective than conventional mindfulness approaches.”
VRM does have some drawbacks, including access to the technology.
“You need at least a smartphone and a head-mounted display [HMD]. Even if HMDs are now cheap – US$400 for a stand-alone device that does not need a smartphone, US$10 for a plastic HMD that uses the computational power of a smartphone – having them with you everywhere can be annoying,” says Riva.
Looking at digital screens on the HMD can cause eye strain and fatigue, he adds, and it may not be suitable for people with motion sickness or who are claustrophobic.
The VRM field is still in the very early stages, with minimal research to back up its efficacy, says Diana Winston, the director of mindfulness education at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Centre in Los Angeles, California.
“I am cautiously optimistic about meditation practices delivered in VR environments. For instance, a healing meditation or guided visualisation could be brought to life in VR,” Winston says.
But she adds: “VR tends to overcomplicate a meditation that is meant to be very simple and does not involve extra visuals or experiences beyond what is happening in one’s own mind.”