App-fueled mindfulness is on offer to stressed-out tech workers. Does it do them any good at all?

I tried a tech-based wellness experience, and I left feeling more stressed out

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published May 28, 2019 7:00PM (EDT)


Ten miles north of San Francisco, tucked behind the moody blue Bay, lies a small slice of heaven for Silicon Valley workers: Casa Madrona Hotel and Spa. Located across the street from sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay in the heart of Sausalito, its Wellness rooms allow customers to “nourish,” in the establishment's words, their minds and bodies in a very technological way. Each room is stocked with a meditation headband that tracks your brain waves while meditating, a virtual trainer to lead you on a run, among other technological, and holistic amenities, such as essential oils to promote relaxation.

I first read about Casa Madrona in a travel magazine where it was touted as a place to disconnect, escape the grind of San Francisco, but with technology’s assistance. It seemed like a very counterproductive way to market a wellness experience. It also seemed like more proof that technology, wellness — including the mindfulness movement — were becoming more intertwined. Apps that focus on self-care, which range from fitness apps to meditation apps to sleep tracking, are both booming in popularity with both consumers and investors, but they seem to contradict what we seek to obtain from taking better care of ourselves, which is mostly less stress, healthier bodies and calmer minds .

I arrived at Casa Madrona on a Friday afternoon skeptical, but with an open mind. A representative for the property showed me around the hotel which had different levels of open-air communal areas and patios. I asked if Silicon Valley workers were frequent customers. She said yes, and that company-sponsored working wellness retreats are very popular. She added that executives seeking increased productivity enjoy taking meditation or fitness breaks before or after meetings.

In my room, I was greeted by a wellness package on my bed. A meditation headband in a box, my personal trainer, Vi — also in a box — and a yoga mat. To the right of my bed I had five different naturopathic remedy rituals to try. This involved putting three to five drops of the liquid on my palms or pulse points to reach a more relaxing mental state. Frankincense for meditating. Lavender to relieve stress and anxiety. There was also a green juice to make my skin glow.

I decided to first try the meditation headband on the patio that had a nice view of the Bay. I opened the box to find a black headband resembling wire headphones, except that the frame rests on my forehead instead of the top of my head. Getting the headband started was not a seamless experience. The instructions are endless. And downloading a $14.99 app is a requirement.

Spending money is a stress trigger for me.

My guess is that unlike me, the average guest at Casa Madrona does not use an iPhone 5. The download time was considerable. While I labored at setting up the headset it occurred to me that actually doing something relaxing and mindful might be a better use of my time.  An hour and a half later, I was finally ready to try the headband out.

I sat on my yoga mat and faced the water. I took a deep breath with the headband resting on my forehead and tucked behind my ears. I felt really weird having to go through all this trouble, and wear this device, to find only three minutes of calm.

Muse, the headband, explained to me on the app what meditation is and how I should try and clear my mind. It said that while meditating, I would hear a storm from my iPhone — sounds of rain and rough winds — but when I heard birds chirping that meant my mind was reaching a state of calm. I sat and meditated for three minutes and heard a few breaks of birds chirping in between. Afterwards, I received a chart that looked like a digital seismograph of my brain, and I had no way of really interpreting it.

I remembered that Hernandez told me that the Casa Madrona experience was tailored for tech-savvy people. Perhaps my problems, in the beginning, were due to my own incompetencies with tech then.

As soon as the session was over I wanted to meditate with the headband again, and hear the birds chirping. It's a game, I thought. Gamification is the goal of so much in tech. Companies strive to integrate game-like mechanics, like rewards or unlocking the next level, into a system with the intent of promoting participation and engagement. It is what keeps people coming back and using the app, which is an important metric when tech companies fundraise.

After meditating, I moved on to a yoga class. Down by the spa, a hotel worker allowed me to choose my adventure on an iPad. I scrolled through the options of yoga classes, like I’d scroll through inventory on Amazon, and decided to try an easy 30 minute vinyasa class. I am no stranger to online yoga classes. I often do them when I’m traveling or can’t make it to a class in the morning before work, but something about doing it in a retreat setting offered by a luxury spa feels unnecessarily lonely and isolating. This is a common criticism of the integration of tech and mindfulness. It is apt.

I spent the rest of my time sniffing essential oils, and contemplating how tech fits into the mindfulness and wellness movement. I decided not to try the virtual running coach because I didn’t have enough time before the sun set. I was not tempted to set up a second app. I slept in the smart bed, haunted by the thought, as I fell off to sleep, that it was not operating properly. In the morning the iPad next to my bed told me I had a poor night’s sleep because I slept under seven and a half hours. I sniffed more essential oils to cope with this news.

Upon my arrival in my Oakland home, I contacted Ronald Purser, a Professor of Management at San Francisco State University, the author of "McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality," eager to know if mindfulness can coexist. He said yes, and that that was the problem.

“The current ersatz form of mindfulness, or what I call ‘McMindfulness,’ is an instrumentalized technique that, like taking an aspirin for a headache, provides temporary relief, allowing for business as usual,” he said. “Mindfulness, at least in this form, requires no real change in lifestyle, no change in values, and no real challenge to corporations and institutions.”

Purser said that the fact that mindfulness has become so popular in Silicon Valley should "give us pause."

“There is no critical questioning as to why employees in tech firms are so stressed, nor is there any challenge to the brutal and long hours these employees have to endure,” he added. “Instead, mindfulness offers a way to keep employees complicit and productive, maintaining the status quo.” They “grease the wheels of corporate capital.”

“It’s like giving someone that has cancer an aspirin,” he added.

I often wonder about the future of the mindfulness and wellness movement, especially since the Bay Area seemingly exists within two polarities: the history of the hippie counterculture movement, and its proximity to Silicon Valley. When I asked Casa Madrona why they decided to curate such an integrative technology experience, they said it was to assist guests in “fully reconnecting with themselves and listen to the physical needs of their body.”

Technology apps for fitness and mindfulness are marketed to help consumers get better results, but I have also wondered if our obsession with tracking our steps, calories and minutes meditating is just another way to stay in front of our screens when really what we need to feel better is step away from them.

I interviewed Ariel Garten, co-founder of Muse, the meditation headband, who has a background in neuroscience, psychotherapy, and asked about the original concept of Muse, and if there were concerns about making meditating a technological experience. Garten said that the hope with the headband was to make it a gateway in which people who are skeptical or afraid of meditation can try it in a more tangible way.

“We are simply an aid to help you learn the skill, and a skill that is quite well defined, and when you have some guidance to learn it, you can actually learn it much faster and effectively,” she said. “For so many people it is like training wheels for your meditation.”

Garten added if you are an expert meditator, it is an easy tool to help you see inside your mind.

“This is a mechanism to shine a mirror inside your own mind and give yourself more angles to understand more angles to look at,” she said.

Purser told me the practice of mindfulness is not “goal-oriented,” though.

“Apps have co-opted the practice, instrumentalized it as a technique to achieve some desired outcome or result,” he said. “Mindfulness practice, before it was taken over by corporations, has nothing to do with short-term quick fixes.”

The outcome of mindfulness depends on what motivates people to explore it in the first place. The origin of mindfulness can be traced back to Hinduism and Buddhism, but has evolved into a secular way of being in the West. In this sense, it is no surprise that mindfulness and wellness has become yet another way to support a capitalist society. Ironically, it is this way of life that has pushed people, like myself, to seek out meditation and yoga in the first place. My experience trying to incorporate technology into what would otherwise be relaxing activities for me left me feeling more stressed out than when I arrived. I think moving forward, I will keep tech and wellness separate, until I find something that really works for me.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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