App Review: Calm – Meditation and Sleep Stories

Available for iOS, Android, and as a website, Calm claims to be the #1 meditation & sleep app, based on over 100 million downloads and 1.5 million reviews. Kesley tries it out to see what all the fuss is about.

“Take a deep breath”

The Calm app appears to be an entire way of life that reveals itself beneath a little blue icon. Will you push the button? Frankly, I did, and I ended up in Wonderland.

On opening the app, I was amused to see text appear, suggesting that I breathe, whilst simultaneously, the sound of running water and birdsong erupted in the background. Then, as I obligingly took an inhalation and exhalation, I was transported to a fairy-sized lake and valley scene, held in the palm of my hand.

As I explored further, I found numerous pages to the app. There seemed to be something for everyone, from a course of contemplations on Relationships to a Thomas the Tank Engine meditation and music tracks, with zany titles including ‘Astral Travelling’ and ‘Double Rainbow’. Over the course of my journey with the app, I’ve indulged in a few bedtime stories shared there too. After all, who could resist being narrated to by entertainment stars such as Eva Green, Joanna Lumley and Stephen Fry?

Features of the Calm app

As a meditation & sleep app, Calm has more than enough useful features. For instance, setting a timer with raindrops or birdsong in the background provides a kind of ‘sound/time container’ for a meditation session. Numerous meditation courses offer some structure and guidance. There are further options to enjoy sleep stories, music, and also a library search tool with categories including: calm body, calm masterclass, calm kids, breathing exercise, check-ins (a journal), and The Spark (a kind of podcast).

The Daily Calm meditation playing. Typically authored and narrated by Tamara Levitt.
The Daily Calm is a unique guided meditation, updated every day.

The Daily Calm

Early on, before I found my way using the app, I started listening to the Daily Calm, a nugget of wisdom from Tamara Levitt, every day. I found it to be a surplus to my needs to listen to someone else guiding my inner reflection and meditation in my meditation practice time. I felt that I didn’t want so much external influence within my psychological boundaries, and I’d rather connect to my own process within. (Also worthwhile to mention is that recently, I noticed that there are now some new presenters adding their tuppence to the Daily Calm, so there might be a little more variety if the idea of a dose of Daily Calm is your brew).

Calm meditation courses

Calm Meditations screen. Many categories include Sleep, Anxiety, Beginners, Stress, Work, etc
Calm offers a large library of guided meditations, both as courses and single guided meditations.

There are lots of courses in the app under the “Meditate” tab. The options I chose from were under the section headed ‘less guidance’ i.e. just soundscapes and timed meditations. There were also many meditations that could be a really useful way to learn meditation for the first time, or to fill up on inspiration on working with specific practices or life issues.

Sleep stories

There are heaps of bedtime stories to listen to. It’s a little bit like dropping off to sleep whilst watching TV. Some of the stories are tightly crafted narratives, others are weaved of meandering journeys through beautiful scenes that waft through the imagination, seeming to leave an unforgettable impression that almost makes me want to yawn just thinking of them.

Calm Music screen. Soundscapes include "Living Among Trees", "Snowfall", "White Noise Ocean Surf", and "Wind in Pines"
Calm’s music is varied, to help you create a “calm” atmosphere whether you are waking up, or winding down, working, or relaxing.

Music in Calm

Possibly the best of Calm is the soundscapes. I found it soothing to block out the sound of traffic and chuntering neighbours. It created a kind of silence in connection with the more-than-human world e.g. sounds of wind billowing through forests and other places I’d rather be, than meditating in the inner city during lockdown. There is also some music by respected electronic artists such as DeadMau5, and I discovered a new genre called Science-led Wellness Music, whilst having a look around. Whatever one chooses to consume, Calm offers music that is soft, relaxing and easy listening, so no more choosing music according to mood, because on this app every mood is basically, erm… calm.

More tools in the Calm app

The mood checkin allows you to record how you are feeling: Happy, Excited, Grateful, Relaxed, Content, Tired, Unsure, Bored, Anxious, Angry, Stressed, or Sad.
You can optionally use the mood checkin before your meditation session, to track your mood over time.

I found the invitation to journal on the app, frankly irritating because it pops up after certain meditation tracks, and put me off listening to them. I’m not ‘fessing up to the Calm App. about my innermost workings, I’m quite capable of sitting with and feeling them – that’s how I meditate. Also, Calm includes ‘Masterclasses’ and ‘Calm for Work’ and ‘Calm Body’… more stuff to consume! There is a breathing tool on the ‘more’ tab, which also pops up when I log in some times, and I promptly click off it because I don’t want a machine to tell me how to breathe. The biological organism rejects the Matrix!

Meditation or entertainment?

I do think that Calm has everything needed to support meditation practice, i.e. there is plenty of inspiration in the form of courses, snippets of wisdom and more. The danger is becoming a lazy meditator, by which I mean not really meditating at all, and bypassing – listening to one of the guided practices instead of being in the here and the now with what’s real, e.g. emotion, physical sensations, and generating deep compassion and awareness to be present with one’s own experiences. 

In the "Train Your Mind" course, Basketball player LeBron James guides you through meditations for "mental fitness".
Calm features some content from celebrities such as Basketball player LeBron James. You’ll need to take out a paid subscription (or use the short trial) to access most of it.

I found myself sometimes going to the app to switch off from my process of thoughts and emotions, and distract myself with some nice words spoken in pleasant tones or some guided visualisations that just pulled me along and away, guided by someone else. In that way, I approached it as pure entertainment, motivated by my own mild intrigue. Still, it seems helpful sometimes to pamper the mind with such offerings as the app provides. However, it is not a replacement for personal meditation and reflection.

Meditating with the Calm app may be a useful way to approach new ways of being. However, it feels a bit like wearing stabilisers when learning to ride a bicycle; it’s not meditation, it’s leaning on someone else’s practice. The teachers may offer inspiration, however the individual must integrate; meditation cannot be served on a plate, ultimately it’s a personal freedom to realise. I am myself and that’s enough. I personally feel that most of the functions on the app. are spiritual entertainment, which can be valuable, enticing, inspiring and oftentimes comforting, however it isn’t a replacement for personal meditation.

So a pitfall I found is that the app is another way of looking outside for peace and comfort, which could become destructive and even addictive. Calm seems to promise, well, calm. However, no app can actually make me a calmer person overall. I can’t just push a button to become calm. If life were like that, then we’d all be robots. The fact is I am a living, breathing organism, and mindfulness is a practice that has to be self-regulated, self-lead and real – not simulated. It’s pleasant to learn from teachers, such as those on the app. However, without doing self-guided practise, the app only becomes a distraction and actually a way to lose some sense of freedom. In addition to real meditation, sometimes distraction or inspiration might help, and Calm is great for that; a bedtime story or a bit of guided practice can be soothing, and some of these entertainers are top-notch. 

I’m not religious about it. I feel that for me, of most benefit is simply the timer on the app. I can sit and meditate and know it’s exactly for that set amount of time. Then I can go ahead with the rest of my day according to schedule. The main argument against using it this way seems to be that it’s also possible to have an internal measure of time in the mind. Furthermore, I wonder if turning on my device first thing in the morning and the last thing at night before I meditate is ideal. I’m still rather dubious about my use of technology; this may be something that perhaps many of us need to resolve in ourselves.

"7 Days of Calm" Day 1 playing. This introductory course is written by Tamara Levitt and you can choose to have it read by Levitt or alternatively John Armstrong.
For some of the core content, you can choose between a female or male narrator. “7 Days of Calm” is the only course available to try in full without a subscription.

Can I use Calm for free? Does Calm Premium offer value for money?

Calm can be downloaded and used for free, but to access all the content requires a subscription. Without the subscription the options are very limited: a “7 days of Calm” introductory course is available, as are a smattering of other sessions, usually offered as a kind of preview of a longer course. The meditation timer is also available without a subscription.

The subscription, known as Calm Premium, costs $14.99 / £9.99 per month or $69.99 / £52.99 per year, with a lifetime membership option for $399.99 / £299.99. This is fairly typical pricing for commercial meditations apps (eg. Headspace, Ten Percent Happier), but if you’re looking for a complete app experience at little or no cost, there are other options (eg. Plum Village or Medito which are free, or Buddhify for a small fee).

So is Calm Premium worth it? Well, there’s plenty to gain including a wealth of entertainment from some pretty classy teachers, popular musicians and so on. I’m sure the app is making some people just a little bit richer, and afterall I’m the consumer and get to choose where I put my bucks. Frankly, I’d rather invest in humanitarian causes and actual systemic change instead of paying for the bills of celebrities. Maybe that’s just where I’m at right now, however I feel rage about a lot of our consumerist culture, which still isn’t fully integrated and neither should it be as we are all responsible for responding to injustices such as ecological devastation, anthropocentrism, sexism, racism, and classism. La la land is a welcome respite sometimes, however if the creators of the Calm app seriously wish me to support the incomes of millionaires by signing up, then frankly, I will not unless I fully understand that cash is going where it’s needed and not on caviar, oversized mansions, and private jets, for example.

Conclusion

So for me, meditation is inner technology, however the use of the Calm application, does make it slightly easier, particularly with the use of the timer that plays recordings of tweeting birds, especially in the bleak British midwinter. I reserve the right to change my mind about it, however for now, everything else it offers is surplus to requirement. I won’t delete it yet, because I like playing the soothing soundscapes that still serve me to cancel the noise of accelerating motorcycles, police sirens and drunks outside my window; aspects of reality I often rather would avoid.

Calm offers pleasant entertainment and some genuine inspiration for meditation. Most of the other facilities are something I’d rather dip in and out of than use to support a daily practice. Do I feel I should pay for this? No, although I might recommend it for the timed sessions and nature sounds on a sick planet full of insanity. 

Kesley used the Calm app over a period of 6 months, with a Calm Premium subscription provided by Calm for review purposes. He was paid by for this review, and has decided to donate his fee to support LGBTQ+ stateless people at UNHCR Kakuma in Kenya who suffer trauma and bereavement due to homophobic attacks. If you enjoyed this review and wish to put mindfulness into action, please consider supporting the campaign to #FreeBlock13

https://www.gofundme.com/f/support-lgbtq-refugees-on-block-13-in-kakuma-camp

Photo of Kesley Cage
About the author Kesley Cage

Kesley Cage is an inner work coach and social activist. He enjoys deep listening, cups of tea and hugs.

https://www.kesleycage.com/

One thought on “App Review: Calm – Meditation and Sleep Stories

  1. Thank you Kesley. Calm is one of the more commercial meditation apps. I think it’s quite common for people who are already meditating (like you) to dislike what feels like a commercialisation of their practice. But apps such as this can work well for people who are new to meditation and perhaps already spending time on their phone – it’s probably better to consume the content in Calm, than to scroll on Facebook or Instagram.

    I’ve been trying Calm using the free trial myself and wanted to share a few things I found.

    One thing that stands out is that Calm supports many languages: English, German, Spanish, French, Korean, Portuguese, and Japanese.

    Also, the iPad layout is very good – sometimes overlooked by other apps.

    I dipped into the “Calm Masterclass” sections and found a short course on “Social Media & Screen Addiction” by Dr. Adam Alter. This covers similar topics to this website so readers may find that interesting, and with only 3 sessions it can be completed using the free trial.

    I’m not keen on the pricing. Although they advertise a Calm subscription as costing $69.99/year (or £52.99), I found that I was offered a one year subscription for far less – £28.99. Perhaps I should consider myself lucky, but I would prefer clarity. This wasn’t shown as a special offer – it looks like they targetted me with this lower price because I had Calm installed on my device for some time without having used it. Or perhaps based on my location: either way, it’s not transparent. I don’t find this kind of targetted pricing fair: whilst it’s not a big deal for those who are well off, the differences in price can be significant for those on a budget.

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