Billion-Dollar Zen

The new mega-industry of meditation apps addresses a rise in mental health concerns, but it also brings us back to tech.

Will Williams, founder of Beeja

Like many other 20-somethings working in the music industry during the 1990s, Will Williams burnt the candle at both ends. Long weeks were marked with drinking binges combining alcohol, Red Bull and Class A drugs, hangovers, and repeat.

His lifestyle landed him with chronic insomnia caused by stress. His sleep deteriorated over the course of his mid-20s. “Things were falling apart year after year. I was destroying myself, so I was looking for a solution.” He went to Harley Street to see some doctors; he tried acupuncture and sleeping tablets, but nothing worked.

A friend recommended Vedic meditation (an ancient mantra-based meditation) and, as a last resort, he tried it. Within two weeks he was sleeping normally. “But it wasn’t just getting a good night’s sleep, I could tell there was something more.” He describes it as a sense of “being myself again, but also being nice to strangers, which I’d never been before. I felt like a more human version of myself, I guess”.

Williams ultimately quit his job and flew around the world for three years trying different types of meditation, meeting all sorts of meditation masters from the Himalayas to the Ganges. He recalls a retreat in India. “Afterwards, I was brimming with ecstasy and love, I felt invincible, I’d never felt this good in my life. I was like ‘wow what is this? Why isn’t everybody doing this?’”

It was a paradigm shift and set Williams on the path to launch Beeja 11 years ago: a Shoreditch-based meditation centre and, this year, a meditation app aimed at time-poor, results-driven newcomers to meditation, which has attracted 12,000 users in the five months since launch. Williams says meditation is an essential tool for 21st-century lifestyles, where most people operate in a permanent cycle of stimulation and stress.

“If our brain and our body are in constant fight-or-flight mode, balance becomes hard to attain. That’s why I’m teaching meditation instead of nutrition or fitness. I had a realisation that if you teach people how to mediate, they’ll be able to make all the right decisions for themselves.

“Meditation allows you to achieve a hypo-metabolic state, where your body can rest and repair itself. It hits the factory resets.”

The Beeja story is the latest in a series of successful meditation app launches in the last few years in response to heightened rates of anxiety and depression.

Globally, one in six people now has at least one mental or substance abuse disorder (over 1.1 billion people) with anxiety disorder ranking number one, according to the World Health Organization. In the US, major depression is up 33 percent since 2013 (and up 47 percent for millennials) according to data platform The Health of America; in China, 40 percent of adults report they experience a lot of stress daily, according to Gallup.

Alex Tew and Michael Acton Smith, founders of Calm

Meditation has been seen by many as a silver bullet: 14 percent of US adults said they meditated in 2017, a threefold increase from 4.1 percent in 2012, according to a report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics.

Accordingly, there are now as many as 1,500 mediation and mindfulness apps according to the Global Wellness Institute, and some have made it to unicorn status.

This year, Calm raised US$115 million in B round funding, giving the meditation company a US$1 billion valuation. Over the past year, the app has successfully launched Sleep Stories, bedtime stories for adults — with the most popular read by Stephen Fry, Matthew McConaughey and Leona Lewis.

Headspace, Calm’s main competitor, has been downloaded more than 54 million times and has annual revenues of more than US$100 million, valued at US$320 million. It recently acquired AI capabilities to be able to react “to where you are in your journey with specific advice”, according to Headspace’s CTO Paddy Hannon in an interview with TechCrunch. More than an app, it has around 300 business clients, from Google to General Electric and Unilever, for whom it runs private mediation sessions for staff.

And despite the inundation of meditation apps, investors still consider the industry a good bet. WAVE, a subscription-based app that is paired with a vibrating, US$199 pillow, secured US$5.7 million in funding for its launch this year.

Not everyone believes that smart tech holds the solution to re-balancing our fast-paced, cortisol-soaked lives. Andy Puddicombe, founder of Headspace, admits: I think most people would agree that the sheer volume of technology and digital chatter these days tends to interfere with our peace of mind. So, we need to experiment and find out what works best for us. For example, bright screens late at night will inevitably stimulate and waken the mind.”

Andy Puddicombe of Headspace

Former recruiter Martha Collard is a gong meditation teacher and practitioner, with one of the world’s largest gong collections. At her Red Doors Studio in Hong Kong, the room is entirely removed from technology. As we lie on yoga mats, our eyes covered, some incense burns, the lights are low, and we are surrounded by 32 primordial-sounding gongs that vibrate with energy as Collard drums them.

Collard is sceptical of over-complicating mediation. “We’ve all been talking about these new technologies and gizmos. There is so much hype around meditation: most people feel to be complete they have to learn to meditate. But I think it’s very simple: eat well, move and get enough rest. The fundamental problem is, we don’t get enough rest.”

When I pose the dilemma of trying to rid our lives of tech, not increase it, to Williams at Beeja, he agrees it is a conundrum. But he says, what makes Beeja different to other apps is that it doesn’t encourage a reliance, aiming to help new mediators meditate self-sufficiently within 30 days. “The technology is just the introduction, not the constant,” he says.

One thing is for sure. Tech is here to stay, so we need to learn to use it wisely.

This article originally appeared in Billionaire's Health Issue, Dec 2019. To subscribe contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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