Deep breath! HeartMath turns iPhone into de-stressing tool

An app paired with an earlobe sensor that measures heart rate guides users through focused breathing sessions. CNET's Elizabeth Armstrong Moore tests her level of "coherence."

The Inner Balance app aims to help users achieve a state of "coherence." Elizabeth Armstrong Moore/CNET

I'll be honest. Vague phrases like "inner balance," "emotional resilience," and "coherence zone," all of which HeartMath uses to describe its new heart rate monitor and corresponding app, aggravate me a bit. After test-driving the product this week, however, I can overlook the language.

Think of the system as a mobile meditation guide. Available as of yesterday on iTunes, HeartMath's free Inner Balance app works exclusively with its Inner Balance earlobe sensor for iOS ($99), which is available at the company's online store or through many major retailers. It uses emWave technology to show the user's heart rhythm pattern (HRV) and trains the user to change that pattern to a healthier, "coherent" state.

The earlobe sensor sets you back $99. Elizabeth Armstrong Moore/CNET

The system is easy to set up and, more importantly, use regularly. After installing the app, simply clip the sensor to your earlobe, plug it into your iPhone or iPad using a standard 30-pin connector (you'll need a Lightning-to-30-pin adapter for iPhone 5), and tap the screen to start.

During a session, which lasts as long as you want it to (end it by double-tapping the screen), your heart rate is displayed in real time across the top of your screen and a trippy circular optical illusion swells and shrinks in the center of your screen at a suggested breathing rate.

Around that circle, little dots of color appear to indicate your "coherence" level (red for low; blue for medium; green for high). When the dots have completed a full circle, 3 minutes have passed.

While you're getting lost in the visual lullaby pulsing in the center of your screen, the app plays soothing tones and scrolls brief messages across the bottom of your screen, reminding you to do such things as refocus on your breathing.

Once you double-tap the screen to end your session, an overview pops up that shows the arc of your heart rate, how long your session lasted, and what percentage of the session was spent in the green, blue, and red zones, etc.

Meanwhile, the settings let you fiddle with the volume of sound effects (or music you choose), the challenge level, the speed of the breath pacer, and more. You can even schedule reminders to be sure you practice regularly.

"Inner Balance truly is a unique offering," says Dr. Deborah Rozman, president and CEO of HeartMath, in a news release. "It's time for technology to help people de-stress rather than being the source of stress and overload for so many."

I started off in the red and then spent roughly 80 percent of my first few sessions in the green zone (not sure if it always started in red to alarm and motivate or if I actually initiated each session in a state of "incoherence").

After breathing deeply and focusing on the image and sounds for just 3 or 4 minutes, my head felt clear and my body relaxed, which made me feel calm and rejuvenated -- like I had energy but not the frantic caffeinated kind.

I can't yet say whether the app and sensor are helping me "effectively manage stress, make better decisions, feel better, and live a more quality life," as HeartMath suggests, but the system certainly is tempting me to make this decision: buy the thing.

 

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