Mindfulness Apps I Love: “Unwind”

Disclosure: I was approached by Unwind‘s developer to review their breathing app and offered a free upgrade. I appreciated the suggestion to try Unwind because these days I’m all about breathwork. In addition, upon reading about the app in the iPhone App Store, I was impressed with both the concept and the developer’s sincere responsiveness to user comments. You can find it in there App Store here.

I’ve been using the Unwind app for a number of weeks now. It is a lovely breath-focused app with a number of unique features that I love, customizable and easy to use.

Unwind offers three breath exercises, all of which I which I recognized as science-backed for specific purposes: (1) the “Start fresh” pattern (6 counts in, 3 counts out) which brings oxygen into the body and energizes you; (2) the “Relax & unwind” pattern, great for a relaxation break during the day (4 counts in, hold for 4 counts, 4 counts out, hold for 4 counts); (3) the “Sleep better” pattern, perfect for deep relaxation before bed (4 counts in, for 7 counts, 8 counts out).

The user can pair these patterns with a specific ambiance. An ambiance is a themed background soundscape, and Unwind offers a broad range with options such as Rainforest, Rain on Umbrella, Village Backyard, Open Air Cafe, Japanese Pagoda…including unique ones that I haven’t found in similar apps such as Deep Space, Swimming with Whales, Castle and City Skyline with Ocean. At last count, there were 33, so there’s a flavor for every mood.

Breathing in, the landscape moves up.
Breathing out, the landscape moves down.

Each ambiance has a visual associated with it, and I really like the way the breath is represented in Unwind. In other apps, the breath is often shown as a ball, but in Unwind, it’s the selected ambiance’s landscape, with a foreground and background layer rising and lowering with the inhalation and exhalation. The images are uncomplicated and not distracting, but easily recognizable. There are also additional visual cues: a circle that represents time elapsed in a session and a line that represents breath “hold” time.

Sometimes I play an ambiance by itself, allowing my imagination to create my own imagery, or simply to use it as background sounds while I’m working or drifting off to sleep.

The settings give you a variety of options for customization.

You can chose between a male and female voice for inhalation/exhalation guidance: “Seth” or “Emma”. I’ve tried both and found that I’m more drawn to Emma’s voice, but I appreciate the ability to switch between the two. Also, it seems like there’s a slight change in voice inflection between some of the guidance cues, so even though the spoken words are the same, it doesn’t feel like you’re listening to a robot. That’s nice attention to detail!

This is the ultimate in making the app your own: you can stick with the pre-set breath exercises, or modify them to your liking.

Another lovely customization is the ability to adjust the breath lengths for each of the breathing exercises. While the established counts are research-supported, if, for example, the 7-count hold happens to be too long for you, you can adjust it. This means that you have the ability to completely personalize your breathing patterns, a valuable feature that I don’t usually find in apps like this. Of course, you can also choose the total length of each breathing session.

Finally, after each session, you have the opportunity to select a little emoticon that represents your mood, and there’s space to write your thoughts, should you want to jot down a few notes.

Because I feel that mindfulness, relaxation and breathwork should be accessible to all and not limited to those who are able to pay, I held off on the upgrade that I was given to me so that I could try out the free version first. My experience was not diminished at all, and that was really important to me.

Eventually, I did upgrade, which gave me access to the entire list of ambiances, which otherwise are locked. However, even in the free version, you can access some (or all — sorry, I upgraded before I found out!) additional ambiances by maintaining your practice streak, which is a lovely perk. Upgrading also enables you see all your past sessions and notes. But there is no subscription, which sets Unwind apart from other apps of its kind. There’s only a flat, one-time fee (at this writing, $5.99). I really appreciate that and would have happily paid it myself!

The bottom line is that I love this breathing app! Its obvious that the developer put a lot of thought into it, with a definite focus on the needs of the user. Unwind is the ideal complement to the other meditation apps that I use, and perfect for whatever breathwork I want to do. Because most of the features are accessible without the upgrade, I recommend trying this out to see if it works for you. If you do decide to upgrade, it’s a small investment for immediate access to all the ambiances and logged notes, and in my mind, well worth it.

Mindfulness Apps I Love: “Oak”

Oak is among the simplest meditation apps that I’ve tried. While it’s not as stripped down as The Breathing App, it really covers all one would need for a meditation practice.

The home tab – simple!

I love the aesthetics — the app has a soothing watercolor-like look to it that reminds me of a quiet, overcast morning, before the rest of the world has awoken. Navigation is very simple as there are only three basic elements to choose from: meditate, breathe and sleep. However, they’re quite enough.

Meditate offers three meditation options, all customizable in duration, instructor voice (male/female), background sounds and warm up (for those wanting to settle in before meditating). The three types of meditations are (1) Mindful, learning to focus on the breath; (2) Loving Kindness, cultivating compassion and empathy both for yourself and others; and (3) Unguided, with the choice of interval bells instead of spoken cues.

Choose your meditation and then customize it to your liking.

Again, very uncomplicated and accessible. Both the male and female voices have that certain “something” that makes them soothing and easy on the ears. While Oak doesn’t have the expansive meditation libraries that some apps provide, for many meditators what Oak offers will be quite enough, and the ability to customize the meditations creates far more permutations than one might expect.

Breathe is the section of this app that I personally use the most. It consists of three types of breathing exercises: (1) Deep Calm, which has been advocated by Dr. Andrew Weil and has a 4-second inhale, 7-second hold and 8-second exhale; (2) Box breathing, which is a square “box” of inhale-hold-exhale-hold, each segment being 4 seconds long; and (3) Awake, which is a 6-second inhale followed by a brief 2-second exhale.

The number of breaths per “set” for each of these exercises differs, and you are limited to the number of totals sets you can do at a given time. However, this is probably a good idea because it’s important to take breaks when doing prescribed breathing in these ways. Think of it as insurance against passing out.

Not just for sleep! I can choose from a variety of sounds to fill the empty voids in my workday.

Sleep offers (1) Relaxing Sounds and (2) Guided Breath. Again, there are options for the background sounds and duration. I enjoy using the sound “elevate” at work, not for sleep (!) but to offer gentle music to even out the frustrations that may complicate my day.

There is also a 10-session course on Mantra Meditation. While I was able to unlock it for free, this may be a temporary benefit (perhaps due to COVID-19?) because the App Store makes mention of the course being available for a small fee. Keep that in mind for the future.

I had not been using a mantra for meditation, but this class helped me choose one and added another dimension to my meditation practice. The narrator’s voice was perfect for this type of lesson. The class is downloadable which leaves you no excuse not to meditate on your next plane flight. Note that I haven’t completed the entire course yet, so I cannot yet comment on its benefits as a whole.

Finally, Oak tracks your progress, including minutes meditated and number of breaths taken. It also shows the number of people meditating and breathing with you. And of course, it shows you your streaks. So, if there were something that I felt I need to gripe about with this app, it would be that it encourages me to focus on streaks. I can get pretty obsessive and competitive about these things, and unfortunately, Oak doesn’t let me turn them off.

On the other hand, tracking your progress is what allows you to gather badges while developing your meditation and breathing practice, so for anyone who’s interested in seeing visual reminders of their progress, this is a plus.

All things considered, this is a lovely app that you’re not likely to outgrow quickly. With the exception of possibly being charged for the course, everything else is absolutely FREE, which evokes the spirit of mindfulness being accessible to all. It also makes it completely risk-free to download and try for yourself. While I haven’t used Oak quite as much as I have other apps, I really do enjoy it and highly recommend it.

Mindfulness Apps I Love: “The Breathing App”

In my last post, I mentioned yogi Eddie Stern’s breathing app. If there were ever an app that exemplified the beautiful simplicity of mindfulness, this is is!

There are several things that make this mobile app perfect: (1) it does one thing and does it well, (2) it is uncomplicated, and (3) it’s absolutely free, with no in-app purchases.

This app is designed to help guide you in breathing. It is based on the concept of resonance frequency breathing, which is deep, slow, diaphragmatic breathing, between about 4-7 breaths a minute, depending on the individual — true resonance is considered to be six breaths a minute. Resonance breathing, “where oscillations in heart rate (HR) and breathing synchronize” (Pagaduan et al., 2019), has been shown to improve heart rate variability (HRV), which is “a key marker of health, mood, and adaptation” (Steffen et al., 2017). You may be familiar with HRV if you’re in training for a sport.

Set the timer, choose your breath intervals…

As Eddie Stern describes in his app and on his website, “by breathing at resonance, we enter into an even balance between the two branches of our autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic…and the parasympathetic…” The sympathetic is known as “fight-or-flight” and parasympathetic as “rest-and-digest”, and in our everyday lives, we tend to spend too much time with the sympathetic nervous system in charge.

…and inhale.

The Breathing App helps us balance out the two systems via resonance breathing. There are several elements to this app: (1) an informational page, with instructions on setting up and using the app, including info on the science and creators; (2) the breathing ball, which helps you visualize the breath; and (3) the sound breath guide, which provides a tone that guides your inhales and exhales.

You set the timer from 1 to 30 minutes, choose your inhale:exhale ratio (2:3 or 4:4 [for kids]; 4:6, 5:5, 6:6 [true resonance] or 5:7), and decide whether you’ll watch the ball or look at a starry sky, with or without the sound.

And that’s it.

There’s nothing to buy and practicing with it is simple. Of all the mindfulness/meditation apps that I use, this is one of my favorites and I use it to augment my yoga practice. Give it a try!

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Fun fact: some well-known names are credited as participating in the development of this app, including Deepak Chopra and musician Moby!

Starting 2020 with Compassion: A Valentine for Maj. Bill White

Given that there’s a lot of divisiveness and polarization in the United States right now, I’m looking for the humanity in my country. Most of the time I feel rather ineffectual, and I have wanted to make small difference in the life of a stranger.

My opportunity came in the form of a news story (mine, Time online, but this has been posted by a wide variety of sources): Maj. Bill White is a 104-year-old veteran of the Battle of Iwo Jima who spends much of his time scrapbooking. He mentioned to the interviewer that he’d enjoy getting Valentine’s Day cards, which he promises to keep on his bookshelves, the same ones where his Purple Heart sits.

Now, while I’m decidedly not a fan of war and wish that we lived in a world where the military was not necessary, I have respect for people who are willing to give of themselves, no matter what the venue. But what moved me the most was the spark that this elderly man had. When he sang the Marines’ Hymn (see video), his voice was clear and unwavering. He still had so much life in him at age 104.

And his secret for living so long? “Just keep breathing.”

Indeed.

I will be sending him a Valentine’s Day card. If you would like to do the same, here’s the address:

Operation Valentine
ATTN: Hold for Maj Bill White, USMC (Ret)
The Oaks at Inglewood
6725 Inglewood Ave.
Stockton, CA 95207

And if not to Maj. White, perhaps there’s another deserving individual whom you could surprise this Valentine’s Day with a cheery greeting? I encourage you to do so. There’s still enough time.

And just keep breathing.

A Year With Tamoxifen

One of the most distressing parts of going through cancer treatment was that I thought it would “ruin everything”, even if it saved my life. Physically, I was really enjoying my 50s and hadn’t noticed much of a drop in endurance and strength, and certainly wasn’t experiencing menopausal symptoms. But with my diagnosis came the news that, because I had an estrogen receptor positive tumor, I’d need to be taking estrogen-blocking Tamoxifen (or an aromatase inhibitor) for a decade.

A decade is a long time! Chemo was only six courses over about four months and radiation lasted only six weeks — all time-limited and psychologically doable. But Tamoxifen would be with me for ten years, and presumably, so would the troublesome side effects, according to just about every woman who was taking it. They spoke about how difficult it was to stick to the daily regimen, knowing that it was responsible for horrible hot flashes and night sweats — one woman even said that she couldn’t exercise due to the severity of her symptoms.

Not exercise?!?! My version of hell: a sedentary existence.

At this point, I was busy dying a thousand deaths. I started to question whether death by cancer was a preferable alternative to a decade of misery. Mind you, I hadn’t even begun taking Tamoxifen yet; all of this was fear-driven. I feared having no control over my own existence and the things that really mattered to me. Basically, this was an end to life as I knew it.

So, fast forward to today. I have been on Tamoxifen for a year. I’m still waiting for the misery. Please note, I do not, for a second, doubt that women struggle with Tamoxifen’s side effects and I have the utmost sympathy for them. I also realize that I’ve been very fortunate so far to not have those types of symptoms. Sometimes I feel a little warm and have to roll up my sleeves or take off a sweater. Being in stuffy rooms can feel uncomfortable. But these don’t constitute what has been described to me as a hot flash, and I cannot recall whether I had those same sensations prior to treatment. Before my diagnosis, I’d had some sweaty nights from stress; I haven’t had a single night like that since starting Tamoxifen.

I do have some memory issues, particularly distractibility and loss of focus. Sticking to one thing at a time is an absolute necessity or else I’ll get sidetracked. My libido took a hit too. But is that Tamoxifen, effects of chemo…or just the onset of menopause?

The bottom line is, I had beaten myself up over potential effects of a medication way before I’d experienced it. I’d ignored the number one rule of cancer: everyone’s experience is different. Oddly enough, that had been the mantra I repeated to everyone else, but I’m the one who needed the reminder. For me, Tamoxifen has not turned out to be the torture that I’d expected.

If there’s a take-home message from this, it’s that cancer is a complex disease and its treatment is equally complex. Just as there is personalized medicine, there are individual reactions to that medicine. I, for one, have convinced myself that I need to stay off the Internet, take a deep breath and have my own experience.

When Deep Breaths Don’t Calm

It’s an obvious understatement to say that getting cancer is stressful.

My treatment plan involved a lumpectomy first, then chemo and radiation, but just getting to the surgery wore me out emotionally. I’ve written before that I’d never experienced anesthesia before, certainly never had major surgery…and add to that, the surgery would confirm how far my cancer had spread so I was apprehensive about the whole thing.

Suffice it to say, I didn’t handle this process well. Two weeks prior to surgery, I had begun a mindfulness meditation practice at the suggestion of my radiation oncologist. This was a life-changing step for me, but I hadn’t had enough experience with meditation for it to truly benefit me as I was sitting in the “ready room”, waiting for my surgeon. I knew I had to breathe, but it was hard to focus when I was terrified.

The “breathe deeply” mantra was repeated by a number of nurses, probably because I looked like a wreck. I can honestly say that breathing deeply, as hard as I tried, didn’t work. Months later, I came across an article (and unfortunately, I cannot recall whom to credit for this) addressing this issue. The problem with focusing on the breath during periods of extreme anxiety is that the breath is most obvious in the center of the body. You know, right where your racing heart is. I couldn’t separate out the two, and as I was trying to slow my breathing, I was acutely aware of the pounding in my chest.

So, here’s the advice that I would give now: find a comfortable position and focus on your hands. Feel into them and focus on any sensations present in them. Fingers are sensitive, so it’s likely that you’ll feel something. Is there tingling there? Are they numb?What’s the texture of the material that they’re resting against? If you feel nothing, rub your hands together and focus on those sensations.While this type of meditation (essentially a body scan) is often done with eyes closed, depending on the individual and how frightening the surroundings are, it might even work better to keep the eyes open and look at the hands. But really look, so that you draw your attention away from the beating heart, and then gradually try to slow your breathing.

The idea is to keep your attention away from parts of the body that remind you of how anxious you are.

I can’t say that I would have completely relaxed had I known to do this. I had been dealing with runaway anxiety for the past weeks that my rudimentary meditation had only begun to chip away at. But it’s possible that I would have gotten myself into a more comfortable state as I waited for surgery. Definitely worth trying the next time you find that a breath focus doesn’t help with anxiety.