There are few experiences more awkward than trying to meditate with other people watching you. I know, because I tried to do it recently when I met the makers of a new wearable connected device called Sona.
Nora Levinson and David Watkins, the co-founders of Caeden, the company behind Sona, are both veterans of Jawbone. They wanted to create a new smart bracelet that's a bit different than the other options on the market. Sona, which is on pre-sale now for $149 and will ship in late spring, measures the normal things you'd want in an activity tracker — like calories, heart rate, and distance traveled — but it has an added component: It claims to measure your stress levels and trains you to lower them.
"For our customers, one of the bigger issues is how to find balance in your life and health," says Levinson. "We're trying to take a more holistic approach to looking at mind and body."
To understand how Sona works, we have to get a little bit technical. The device taps into something called "heart rate variability" (or HRV for short), which is a fancy phrase for the exact time between each individual heartbeat. This is different from your heart rate, which is simply a measure of how many times your heart beats per minute. Ideally, the amount of time from beat to beat varies slightly because your body is capable of responding to constant changes in the environment. Higher variability is a good sign that you're resilient to outside stressors. If you heart beats like a metronome, however, you're less resilient. A number of studies have linked higher variability with lower stress, and contrarily, lower variability with more stress (and an associated increased risk of mortality).
Okay, still with me? So you want to boost your HRV, or variation between each beat, and in turn, improve your mental health and resiliency to stress. One proven way to do this is with breathing exercises. Generally, as you breathe in, your heart rate speeds up, and when you exhale, it slows down. Focused breathing exercises are kind of like strength training sessions for your heart's resilience.
This is where Sona comes in. The technology in the bracelet measures your HRV throughout the day and relays it back to you via an iPhone app. If it's low, you can use the app's guided breathing exercises to improve. There are exercises for waking up, falling asleep, relaxation, and energy. Each session tells you when to inhale and exhale and measures your HRV throughout.
During my demo at the Caeden office, I strapped the Sona onto my wrist and watched my heart rate rise and fall on the iPhone app as I tried to steady my breath in meditation. If you're doing it right, you should see a nice, smooth, snake-like pattern on the screen, indicating your heartbeat is changing with your breath. High peaks and low valleys represent high variability. I tried to steady my breath, but felt the silence of the room close in around me as the Caeden team members looked on. My performance anxiety showed: My graph looked erratic, random, spasmodic.
After about three minutes passed, Levinson mercifully brought the session to a close and leaned over to inspect my work. "You're starting to get it," she said, sympathetically. "Usually it takes someone a couple of sessions to get into it."
The bracelet itself is elegant and understated. There's no screen, so it doesn't look overly techy, which makes it potentially appealing to a wider consumer base. "The challenge was to make a product that was fairly unisex and that we could change up with different variations," Watkins says. Sona's leather band comes in white or black, and the bracelet's metal comes in gold, rose gold, or gunmetal. It can be stacked with a watch or other bracelets, and mostly forgotten about until you open the app at the end of the day to get your summary.
The hope with Sona, Levinson says, is that stress-prone wearers will learn how to adjust their breathing intuitively over time, rather than relying on the app. "Once you've done it over a long period of time you can train yourself to do it without the guidance so it becomes an internal reflex you can call on if you're having anxiety episodes."
I decided to give the bracelet another shot, this time in a closed room, alone. A few minutes lapsed and my breathing stabilized. I started to see those smooth waves rise and fall. Being able to see your own progress in the moment is one of the best things about this tool. "The hope is because you can give people feedback in the moment you and show their improvement over time, it can help people see meditation is a real thing," Levinson says.
Who knows if it was the breathing session or just the relief of being alone in a quiet room, but I did feel more relaxed afterwards.