Hundreds of so-called “mindfulness” apps already clutter the web. Now Apple is integrating such an app into its watch, and pitching it with a quote from new-age garbage peddler Deepak Chopra — just a few days after Chopra introduced his own mindfulness app.
During WWDC yesterday, Apple introduced Breathe for the Apple Watch. By reminding users to take deep breaths throughout the day and leading them through simple meditation exercises, Apple — via Chopra — claims Breathe can help alleviate anxiety. “Taking a moment each day to do some deep breathing can reduce stress,” claimed a quote from Chopra that was read aloud during the keynote.
The digital pursuit of mindfulness is the basic idea behind Chopra’s own app, Jiyo, which debuted on iOS and Android last week. Although Chopra doesn’t want to call it an app — he prefers, ahem, “wellbeing partner” — it has similar features to Apple’s Breathe, like guided breathing and meditation exercises. It also feels like it’s pitching a quick and easy path to mindfulness: Hey, just tap on this screen, follow these simple directions and you’ll be rewarded with better health. Or as he would put it, “quantum health“.
The value of Chopra's own ideas and recommendations are dubious -- to the point that some of his Tweets have been deemed indistinguishable from bullshit. And according to some experts, mindfulness apps are just as questionable. "Science behind mindfulness apps shows most don't help or work," tweeted Harvard psychiatrist John Torous, who is also the editor-in-chief of the JMIR Mental Health journal. Torous later told Fast Company that these types of apps are increasingly being investigated by experts. "These companies are very bold in their claims, and very quiet when things don't work," he said. "It is premature to say the mindfulness app space is well-validated at this time."
This is actually a problem with most "mental health" apps, which a study in Nature earlier this year determined can sometimes give improper advice that makes people's conditions worse. A 2015 study by Institute of Health & Biomedical Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia looked at 606 mindfulness apps and determined that only 23 actually taught mindfulness techniques. The rest were just timers or reminders -- most of them told users to stop what they were doing and breathe.
Spire's mindfulness fitness tracker and the breathing exercises offered on Spire's app, which look a lot like Apple's Breathe
That's not to say deep breathing is necessarily useless. According to the research of Jonathan Palley and Neema Moraveji at Stanford's Calming Technology Lab, the techniques can be helpful. After seven years of studying the benefits of deep breathing, Palley and Moraveji have concluded that slow, purposeful breathing can indeed lower blood pressure and increase endorphins.
The pair created Spire, a $US150 ($204) mindfulness-focused fitness tracker that tracks breathing as well as activity. It pairs with an app on your iPhone or watch and sends reminders to breathe deep when it thinks you're "tense". (It's important to note that our reporter reviewed Spire, and found that the device didn't seem to accurately correspond with her perceived levels of tension, telling her to chill when she was pretty chill already.)
The Spire app also includes breathing exercises from famous mindfulness experts. And yes, there is a "Breathe with Deepak", which might provide all the information you need about whether you want this device or not. Its deep-breathing graphics are also strikingly similar to the Breathe interface that Apple introduced yesterday, right down to the pulsing green circle. When I reached out to Spire, its creators declined to comment, but a representative said the creators felt Apple's app validated their work in the mindfulness space. Spire is currently sold online by Apple in the US (though not in the Australian store).
But I did talk to the creator of another mindfulness app that's been available in the App Store since last year. It's called... Breathe.
Erez's app Breathe allows users to customise their breathing reminders with text and emoji
This isn't the first time Apple's just happened to launch an app that bears a marked resemblance to one already in the App Store. But this instance is particularly egregious, according to Breathe's developer Ben Erez. "This is just very blatant, the name of our app is taken, plus the exact concept and use case," Erez told Gizmodo. "You wouldn't have the need for both our app and this app."
It also illustrates how crowded the mindfulness space is becoming -- and how developers like Erez will have to add more bells and whistles to differentiate themselves, now that Apple has basically branded Breathing™ and integrated it into its device. "Mindfulness is very personal," Erez said. "The notion that breathing is important isn't something new or novel, but each of us is inspired by different things."
Some people might be inspired to pay $2.99 per month for Chopra's brand of mindfulness, which includes tips on releasing pain from your "cellular memory" and some tough inquiries on science that "physicists can't answer". You might have to do some deep exhaling just to recover from all that bullshit.