Who gets to be the 'voice in your head?' Meditation apps push to diversify offerings

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Mindfulness based meditation has become a popular solution for stress relief and reducing anxiety. As we kept our distance during the pandemic, many turned to apps and online classes. But who gets to be the voice in your head? And how important is representation in those voices?

It's impossible to talk about meditation apps without mentioning Headspace. The app launched in 2012 and has since hit 70 million downloads worldwide.

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The voice of Andy Puddicombe, a trained Tibetan Buddhist monk turned meditation app co-founder, is synonymous with the product.

Andy (as he introduces himself in the app) is known for his calming, ethereal, however noticeably white, voice that skillfully leads a variety of meditations. Until 2019, Andy was the only voice offered in the app.

Users' calls for diversity in who gets to be the voice in your head were answered in 2019 with the addition of female meditation teacher Eve Prieto.

In 2020, Headspace further expanded its offerings by bringing on meditation teachers of color like Dora Kamau, who often leads classes specific to the Black experience.

For the mindfulness based meditation app Shine, inclusivity and diversity of voice was built in from the ground up.

"The more that you're seen and validated, the healthier a relationship you can have with yourself," said Naomi Hirabayashi, Shine co-founder and CEO.

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Hirabayashi, an Asian American woman, founded the app alongside Marah Lidey, and African American woman, in 2016 after not seeing themselves reflected in the wellness market.

"Wellness is often like sold as a commodity as this luxury lifestyle only a few get access to," said Hirabayashi. "Elevating experiences of people that are often underrepresented only elevates us as culture. 90% of our meditations are voiced by women of color."

Hirabayashi said one of the most important goals of the app is breaking down stigmas surrounding mental health and promoting access to help for people of color -- more likely to suffer from mental illness and less likely to seek help.

The app was named Best of 2020 by Apple and saw its highest engagement to date last year as the app focused on providing niche content for marginalized groups.

Shine offers identity-specific content like the Black mental health playlist and the Daily Shine with resources dedicated to navigating mental health for the Asian American Pacific Islander community. Topics range from dealing with generational trauma and racial battle fatigue.

While meditation apps like Shine saw a rise in use during the pandemic, so have more traditional group meditation classes forced to pivot online during the pandemic.

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"Whether it's Zoom or in person, it's community that keeps bringing people back," said Mushim Patricia Ikeda, East Bay Meditation Center community director.

The Oakland-based East Bay Meditation Center has seen a 100% growth in 2020.

More than 16,000 people attended a variety of weekly meditation groups over the year, some logging on to classes led over Zoom half a world away just to tap in to the diverse roster of more than 80 teachers.

Average attendance at registered classes jumped from 41 in 2019 to 81 in 2020.

The center offers a variety of identity-specific classes for under-represented groups ranging from people of color, LGBTQIA+ communities, people living with disability or illness, and young adults.

"They're looking for teachers and leaders who look like them and or who self-identify in the way that they do," said Ikeda.
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