Get yourself into a comfortable position. Bring your attention to your breath.
Whose voice did you hear these words in? If you use meditation apps on the regular, you’ve got a particular person in your mind right now.
Whether your chosen app is helmed by one signature voice or offers up to 10,000, voice is an important element of a meditation app. The voice becomes your link to developing mindfulness, your intimate guide to building tactical tools to help you navigate life’s ups and downs, and the key to you actually returning the next day for another session. They start your morning, bring you clarity in your most vulnerable moments, and even lull you to sleep , with the dulcet tones of Harry Styles willing you to the land of nod… wait, Harry Styles? How did he get in here?
There’s significant power and strategy behind the voice within your meditation app, as major players in the mindfulness space find their own voices in an industry that relies on having a distinct one.
The voice you probably already know
Undeniably, one of the most recognisable voices in the mindfulness industry today belongs to Headspace’s Andy Puddicombe.
A meditation and mindfulness expert, Tibetan Buddhist monk, trained circus performer, and co-founder of Headspace, Puddicombe has recorded the majority of guided sessions for the popular app. Rival app Calm has a similar signature voice in its head of mindfulness, Tamara Levitt.
Puddicombe’s voice is so familiar to users that when people meet him IRL it always goes the same way. People assume he knows them, and that they know him, because he’s in their ears giving instructions — to take a deep breath and enjoy the feeling of having nothing to do — for 10 to 20 minutes a day.
“I think Andy’s voice was a sort of underrated asset for the brand from the beginning,” says Headspace‘s head of content, William Fowler. “Andy’s from Bristol but he has a kind of accentless sort of quality to his voice. In America, a lot of people think he’s Australian…they can’t really place him. So, he has an oddly neutral voice but still he manages to express a kindness and approachability. That is key for the relationship people develop with him as a teacher.”
You can see Puddicombe at work in this guided meditation with The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon, in which he shifts from casual chat to a two-minute guided meditation with the audience:
In 2019, following requests from users for a female voice, Headspace made the move to broaden the app’s vocal pool to include that of Eve Lewis Prieto, the company’s director of meditation. “A lot of people prefer Eve now,” says Fowler. “We’re starting to see more equitable balance in terms of usage. Because Andy’s the founder, more of the content exists in his voice. Eve is catching up with him, and in terms of her popularity when users choose a voice, she’s hot on his heels.”
Over the years, some of you have asked for our content in a female voice. Try as I might, I just can’t pull it off. Thankfully, we had the perfect woman close at hand to re-record @Headspace exercises — available in-app, with more to come — so you now have the choice pic.twitter.com/YvihrzoQtp
— Andy Puddicombe (@andypuddicombe) July 31, 2019
Prieto had worked with Headspace since 2013, having joined the company with an interest in meditation as a tool for managing anxiety. After a rigorous recruitment process, Fowler says Prieto tested better than other candidates they’d reached out to, as she understood Headspace’s approach to meditation.
A mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) teacher in training, Prieto says that Headspace’s meditations try to create conditions as if the host was in the same room as you, as “your trusted friend and guide.” She trained as a Headspace guide under Puddicombe and senior dharma teacher David Nichtern, and has spent time practicing at Scotland’s Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery.
“My training is based heavily on my practice, without direct experience of what I am teaching it becomes harder for them to feel authentic,” she says. “When I am delivering meditations or teaching a class I am very much doing the practice with them. Of course there is a lot of studying involved but without the practice then it is not an experiential experience and that is so important when teaching meditation.”
Even in an audio medium, diversity matters for Headspace users. “We had feedback from our members that they didn’t feel our representation was what they expected,” Fowler says, adding that the company started recruiting people of colour as guided meditation teachers in 2020 (both Puddicombe and Prieto are white).
“We are trying to create a range of representation within the product so people can feel themselves reflected in the voices that they hear,” says Fowler.
Headspace reached out to a range of meditation guides, focusing on tone, teaching approach, and authenticity. Headspace wasn’t looking for someone robotic, who sounded like they were reading a script. Instead, it wanted someone to bring their own practice and energy to the company. Registered psychiatric nurse Dora Kamau tested extremely well, and was hired as a full-time mindfulness meditation teacher in November 2020. “Her desire to teach meditation stemmed from the lack of diversity in the mindfulness community, and a yearning for more wellness spaces with Black representation,” says Prieto.
Also hired was acupuncturist and outpatient psychotherapist Kessonga Giscombe, who is trained in MBSR. However, browsing through Headspace’s classes, Puddicombe and Prieto still pop up most often as teachers you can choose from.
Your friend with a psych degree
Leading the charge for representation in meditation apps is Shine, created by Marah Lidey and Naomi Hirabayashi, a Black woman and a half-Japanese woman, who wanted to centre the mental health of marginalised groups they felt were “otherized” in mainstream wellness. The pair met as coworkers a decade ago, and crafted Shine’s brand “voice” through their experience of helping each other cope through stress.
Representation is reflected in both Shine’s guides and the packaging of its classes. The app prominently features a “Black mental health” playlist, for example. And most of Shine’s audio content is created by Black women or women from marginalised communities.
“We are for everyone and also recognise that by elevating representative and diverse voices that are reflective of the world and our audience, that’s how we elevate all of us,” says Hirabayashi. “We’re reflecting a variety of different experiences, because the intersection of our own experiences with mental health is how we experience different elements of struggle or confidence or trauma.”
Beyond representation, Lidey and Hirabayashi also look for experience, how well the guide meshes with Shine’s mission, and warmth. Hosts need to be certified, either as a therapist, career coach, or wellness teacher. Listening to them also needs to feel like “spending time with a close friend that makes you feel safe, trusted, and loved versus just a generic voice.”
“When we thought about the voice we wanted to create with Shine, it was really about like, your friend with a psych degree,” says Lidey. “Somebody who is aspirational, has the background in science and research, but isn’t necessarily leading with that in a top-down way, instead is making it accessible, giving you language, and helping you to find an entry point.”
Shine started as a self-care app that sent you motivational texts, but after testing delivery with digital assistants Alexa and Google Home, Shine evolved into a more expansive meditation app.
Regular voices include those of poet, author, and creator Mel Chanté, self empowerment coach Jamila Reddy, creator and yoga teacher Elisha Mudly, and writer and creator Aisha Beau, among others. And while Shine has a whole team of hosts and writers on board, director of content Haley Goldberg created a community-driven model for the content themes. Every user review and customer service ticket goes directly into Slack where all team members can see it. “There’s a lot of transparency on what our users are feeling both about the product but just about their lives,” says Lidey, pointing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the fight for racial justice, the U.S. election, and political uprisings across the world as major touchpoints for Shine users.
Mindfulness with the stars
While some might be happily welcomed into mindfulness by this friend with a psych degree, others might be more tempted by a famous voice. Within the last decade, as the mindfulness industry has boomed, meditation apps have attracted the attention of celebrities, notably actors, whose vocal training and roles as professional storytellers make their voice attractive to listeners — and provides a marketing hook for the apps themselves.
Only some celebrities are presenting guided meditation programs — a celebrity himself, meditation expert Deepak Chopra’s collaboration with the instantly recognisable (and forever soothing) voice of Oprah Winfrey for free meditations on his own mindfulness app, Chopra, was released in November 2020. This is serious mindfulness star power right here:
Kevin Hart is one of Headspace’s most significant star partnerships. His content series includes an advice segment, “Energy Shots with Kevin,” and the genuinely funny “Mindful Runs,” motivating users to run mindfully.
“We saw this opportunity to appeal to people that maybe wouldn’t consider mindfulness otherwise,” says Headspace’s Fowler. “It also speaks to the original goal of Headspace at the very beginning: to demystify meditation.” Making mindfulness fun and approachable is the key to Hart’s content for the platform, deploying comedy through the different elements of meditation.
“One would be a compassionate approach to doing your practice imperfectly,” Fowler explains. “As you fail, you forgive yourself and keep going…So, we give that idea to Kevin, he puts his unique spin on it, and it becomes a really funny monologue about failure.”
Hart writes and delivers this content himself, but he isn’t running guided meditation sessions (those are still run by Puddicombe, Prieto, and Headspace’s new instructors Kamau and Giscombe).
While Hart is carving out a motivational space within the meditation as a lifestyle sector, sleep is where most of the stars are. Calm launched Sleep Stories in 2016, and since then has seen LeBron James, Matthew McConaughey, Idris Elba, Lucy Liu, Nick Offerman, and most recently, Harry Styles (who notably invested in Calm in 2018) reading
boring soothing bedtime tales in a low, slow tone for you to drift off to. Calm co-founder and co-CEO Michael Acton Smith said in a press statement that the singer’s “mellifluous voice is the perfect tonic to calm a racing mind.” And look, he’s not wrong:
Sleep stories are less of a risk for a celebrity than a full-on meditation session. While a celeb may get dinged for teaching a listener how to develop mindfulness tools when they aren’t an expert in that field, delivering a long-winded tale may be right up their alley. Unsurprisingly, the stories are immensely popular. McConaughey’s “Wonder,” a 30-minute story about nostalgia, written by Calm editor and writer Chris Advansun, has been listened to “more than 11 million times” since its 2018 release. McConaughey, with his signature, soothing Texan drawl, was simply made for this.
McConaughey is familiar to many, so his bedtime story is worth checking out as a fun thing to do, even if you’re not into mindfulness. You might be nervous about trying a meditation app, but seeing a celebrity you like in the lineup might make things less intimidating. There’s also an element of pure novelty in hearing that skilled actor or singer attempt a style of performance you’re not used to seeing them in. And then there’s the allure of connecting with a celebrity on a deeply personal level in a meditation app. You get to share a vulnerable moment with a person you feel like you already know — without actually meeting them. Meeting them would ruin it! Celebrity podcasts sit in this same realm; you can have a casual, comfortably one-sided conversation with Laverne Cox, RuPaul, Anna Faris, or Dax Shepard. We’re able to feel closer to these celebrities without putting awkward social pressure on either side.
This celebrity push went even further with Calm’s TV foray, its 10-episode HBO Max series A World of Calm narrated by Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Kate Winslet, Mahershala Ali, Oscar Isaac, Nicole Kidman and more. Famous voices are something so far not employed in Headspace’s own venture into streaming, Netflix’s Headspace Guide to Meditation, which saw the first of three planned series narrated by its own celeb, Puddicombe.
Though less invested in using superstar voices outside of the Kevin Hartnership, Headspace’s hugely popular sleepcasts (again, slowly told stories told with Abe Simpson-level detail designed to get you to nap) have gained somewhat of a cult following — I, for one, am a major fan of them, especially the story “Cat Marina.”
Fowler and his team have significant listener data to help them analyse which sleepcasts are going well. Popular subject matter (the internet loves cats) and voice plays a major part in planning future episodes.
“If we see there seems to be heat there, we’ll double down on that VO artist,” he says, noting the sleepcasts have even developed their own fandoms. “If you look at our Facebook groups, you see that it’s hotly debated, people tend to go for one and then they’ll come back to that voice and maybe that suite of sleepcasts over and over again.” Fandoms over sleep story voices on a meditation app is as niche as it gets.
However, some celebrities are following in Chopra’s footsteps and reaching beyond sleep stories and pep talks. , who reached out to the app she’d personally used for years. On this platform, however, she’s just one teacher among 10,000.
One voice, two voices, why not 10,000 voices?
Star cameos aside, Headspace and Shine stick to a small group of staff voices on the app, whereas competitors like Insight Timer operate with a different model: Thousands of independent teachers upload their own content to the freemium app.
“We thought OK, let’s do something in the meditation space as a marketplace — not like Calm or Headspace with one or two teachers, let’s actually create a marketplace for meditation teachers to go out and find new audiences,” says Insight Timer CEO Christopher Plowman, who bought the self-guided meditation timer app in 2014 with his brother, Nicho Plowman, a meditation teacher wanting to find and develop students.
“Diversity of choice in meditation practice, it turns out is really important. People get bored, surprise, surprise.”
Insight Timer is a massive free library of guided meditations without ads (a paid subscription gets you unique content). Do people tend to stick with one teacher among thousands? “What we find is they start to meander,” Plowman says. “The average number of teachers that someone follows on our app is 11 to 12 teachers…Diversity of choice in meditation practice, it turns out is really important. People get bored, surprise, surprise.”
Meditation teachers regularly upload content in 44 languages and across 45 religions including Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity. “We decided very early on that we weren’t going to strip out spirituality and religion, because people are inherently spiritual or religious,” says Plowman. “Recently, a lot of apps like Calm and Headspace have stripped all that out because they want to get into corporations and schools, and there’s a big separation of church and state.”
With 10,000 teachers uploading content, quality control is a challenge — and the only thing Insight Timer really sends back is recordings of poor audio quality. There’s no brand training for teachers, but there are practical resources. “Obviously we don’t provide curriculum training about what’s the right meditation or what’s the right religious system,” says Plowman. “We definitely provide training and guidance on best practices and recording audio tips.” Insight Timer’s large user community remains the primary monitoring tool, as the app filters content according to ratings and “features” tracks rated 4.6 and above.
With this setup, some meditation sessions on Insight Timer are better than others so it may take a while to find a voice you like. And though the content may vary in quality, the company doesn’t often ditch content. “We very very very rarely remove anything from our platform,” says Plowman. “I think we’ve removed three teachers out of 10,000 in seven years because the decisions they made in their personal lives, it was not appropriate that they were on our platform. But we don’t like to censor, we don’t like to determine what you should listen to.”
With so many meditation apps available, there’s a lot of voice choice these days. It’s important to try a few teachers before you settle on one, as everyone responds to meditation guides differently.
The choices made by the companies putting voices into your mindful ears matter, as they can welcome you into the practice (or discourage you), help you stay focused, and enable you to develop tactical mindfulness tools to navigate turbulent and calm times alike. There’s power and responsibility in a few simple words spoken into a microphone, aimed directly at your brain.
You won’t hear them the same again.