I’ve tried a lot of things in my life to help me sleep. I’ve tried herbal tinctures, weighted blankets and many meds. I’ve tried quitting caffeine, taking cannabis, doing cognitive behavioural therapy, getting acupuncture and paying a nice lady to hypnotize me into a stupor. While all of these things help some of the time, I’ve basically spent countless hours of my adult life lying awake at night or worrying that I will soon be lying awake at night. While my sleep battles have been going on forever, these days I can also add sudden nonsensical fits of blinding perimenopausal rage that leave anyone who dares move my coffee cup — WHO DOES THAT?! — quivering in their wake, plus the exciting development of brain-scrambling panic when I get overwhelmed by deadlines, to my high-strung repertoire. So when I’m asked to test out the new meditation content on the Apple Watch Fitness+ program, I’m too tired and aggravated to say no. When I tell my friend about my assignment she just laughs.
“Oh sure,” she says. “A decade of yoga didn’t help but this will. Good luck, watch!”
My Apple Watch arrives and I’m instantly suspicious of it. I don’t track my fitness (or lack thereof) like all those hard-bodied types that skip around my gym like some sort of possessed Lululemon ad, and the last time I wore a watch was when I got a Swatch for my Bat Mitzvah in 1987. There’s a mindfulness app built into the watch itself that prompts you to do short minute-long meditations, but to get the new full suite of meditation classes you need a subscription to Fitness+ ($12.99 a month or $99/year), which you can then access on your watch, an iPhone, iPad or Apple TV. The new meditation and Pilates classes join a suite of other workouts like yoga, HITT, core and dance. I’m into the all-inclusive model — it’s like having 1000 Jane Fonda workout tapes at your fingertips! But I’m not here to exercise — I’m here to meditate, motherf**ker!
I start small just with the app on my watch. I set a bunch of times throughout the day for it to prompt me to take a minute for a “Breathe” session (where, yes, all you do is breathe, timed to trippy visuals and vibrations) or a “Reflect” session, where the watch suggests something you can reflect on for a minute, like a time when someone was kind to you and how that made you feel. You can accept or decline the prompt, so if you’re in the middle of a conference call or whipping up a paella (me, every day!) you don’t have to do it. Fortunately, I’m a writer so I spend most of my time locked alone in my basement banging my head on a keyboard, so I’m usually available when Watchie tells me it’s mindfulness-o-clock.
At first, a minute feels painfully long. I keep opening my eyes to peek at the clock. “God, only 37 seconds,” I think. “Am I still reflecting?!” But after a couple of days I feel like a one-minute pro, so I level up to the meditation classes on the Apple Watch Fitness+ service. Those come in five-, 10- and 20-minute sessions, and use three basic techniques: Focusing on your breath, the sounds around you or the sensations in your body — and sometimes all three — to help still your mind. There are nine themes, including Purpose, Gratitude, Creativity and Focus, but since I’m mostly interested in improving my ability to chill out and sleep I focus on the Calm classes.
Now, if you’re doing a dance class, then you’ll obviously want visuals, but I actually find watching the instructors meditate on my iPad a little disturbing. “Is he a gargoyle?” I start to wonder. “Is he dead?” Thankfully, you can opt for audio-only, which I quickly select. Apple added two new teachers who specialize in meditation, and the yoga instructors guide some of these practices, too. I like them all, which surprises me, because I hate everything.
JoAnna croons matter-of-factly into my ear against a backdrop of music by Moby about nurturing my ability to feel calm. “We can do this by letting go of what we think we need to get done right now,” she says. “You can think of this like carrying a heavy bag. If we hold it for too long we get tired. After a while we might need to put it down…give our body a rest…take a break. You can pick the bag up again later if necessary. In this meditation we will practice resting our bodies and minds by letting go and being still. Being still can often feel like we’re not productive. Being productive is necessary at times, and so is rest.” Preach JoAnna, preach!
While the meditation classes and the mindfulness app didn’t turn me into a mental master or a champion sleeper, I did notice a few interesting changes after just one week. The first is about my heart.
The watch constantly monitors your heart rate, so now I actually know what my resting heart rate is — a respectable-but-not-great 85 beats per minute (a healthy resting heart rate for an adult is 60-100 BPM). One night I’m getting ready for a work trip and I start flipping out about everything I need to do before I go. As I feel my stress rising, I watch that little heart rate monitor click steadily upwards even though I’m not moving a muscle. It’s an eerily familiar feeling, and I realize that it’s also the cycle I go through when I can’t fall asleep. Do you know what the worst thing to do is when you can’t fall asleep? Panic about not being able to fall asleep! Turns out that my freaking-out heart rate can climb as much as 30 BPM a minute higher than normal. Terrifying? I don’t know. But what I do know is that when I pull out my handy new breathing skills, I’m able to bring my heart rate right back down in under a minute.
The much more unexpected change is my improved ability to just…be. My 10-year-old son Ben calls this “vibing,” and usually I suck at it.
Ben and I don’t share a lot of hobbies, and I often find myself listening jealously as he talks to or plays with his dad for hours. One night Ben and I are about to watch a TV show together. Usually I multitask while doing this — I stretch, I putter, I take off my makeup — but the New More Mindful Me decides that I’m just going to watch TV with my kid. I’m going to be with him and do nothing else for 40 minutes (weird!). I’m not going to check Instagram, I’m not going to pop up to put on the kettle, I’m not even going to have a snack.
And then a magical thing happens. After a while Ben rests his head on my shoulder, then on my lap. When the show is over he actually wants me and not his dad (winning!) to keep him company as he gets ready for bed. I didn’t understand what the Apple people were talking about when they said meditation can lead to feeling more connected, but now I do. Goddamnit, this stuff…works? Ben is certainly a fan because if I get too aggravated with him he just says, “Mommy, relaaaaax. Go do your meditation.”