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Calm does it in a calm way

Calm, Apple's 2017 App of the Year, helps people to relax, meditate and sleep

WHAT do trains and a good night's sleep have in common? Apparently, stories about the former can bring about the latter.

Just take Calm, the award-winning mobile app that helps people to relax, meditate and sleep.

There must be at least five Sleep Stories about trains on the app, making trains the most common theme among the stories, with titles like The Cornish Riviera Express, The Trans Siberian Railroad and The Nordland Night Train. These are soothing tales of train rides along some of the world's most scenic railways.

Sleep Stories, a relatively new feature of Calm, is exactly like having someone tell you a bedtime story - only the person will finish telling the story even after you've fallen asleep.

They are 15-40 minute podcasts created to help users unwind and fall into a deep sleep. The sleep player looks a lot like Spotify or Apple Music, where the pause, rewind and skip buttons are at the bottom, just above a progress bar.

In my last week of using Sleep Stories, I must say that none of those have directly caused me to sleep. They have definitely relaxed me and distracted me from work or bad thoughts, but I've always been awake enough to stop the podcast midway, turn off my phone, cozy up under the covers and then fall asleep a while later.

(This could actually be me wanting to preserve my phone's battery life, because the stories are narrated in a most tender and comforting voice, which can surely lull anyone to sleep in just minutes.)

I like Calm's library of Sleep Stories. They are nicely varied, comprising fiction (Wind in the Willows and Rapunzel); non-fiction (Cricket Explained and The Magic of Yurts) and even travel (Sacred New Zealand and Wonder of the Northern Lights). There's something for every aspiring sleeper.

Founded in 2012 by two British entrepreneurs, Calm was named Apple's App of the Year in 2017.

I had turned to Calm about a week ago to get a better night's sleep but it's fast becoming my new favourite app for another reason. I love that it has helped me to start meditating, a thing I've always wanted to do to improve my mental health.

Calm boasts hundreds of podcasts that will guide you through various types of meditation, classified by themes such as stress, self-care, focus, emotions or relationships. A podcast usually starts with a brief prologue - which could explain, for example, the importance of being mindful - and then launches into a step-by-step guide to meditation.

I like how each session is snappy - a podcast ranges from two minutes to 35 minutes in length - and can be completed anywhere with just earphones. I have meditated at my desk at work, in a crowded train, on a walk home, and even in a bustling restaurant while waiting for company.

During each podcast, a narrator will prompt you to find a comfortable position, take deep breaths and clear your mind, all while an ambient sound - which you can customise - plays in the background.

My current sound, named 'Sunset Beach', is of peaceful waves. It comes with an animated background of a beach at dusk, when the sun is setting and the waves are rolling in gently.

It is one of about 35 ambient scenes that you can choose from; others include 'Thunderstorm', 'Wind in the Pines' and 'Falling Snowflakes'. Think filters on Instagram.

At the end of each session, the narrator will congratulate you on completing the session, remind you to return tomorrow for round two, and wish you a great day.

You will also be rewarded with a motivational poster of the day. One went like this: "We have to look, examine, investigate. We have to find what's really true, not just accept what someone else tells us."

Calm's latest offering is Masterclass, a series of informative podcasts featuring happiness and health experts. These are more educational than meditations, and are intended to teach you how to take control of your health or creative potential to become more mindful or to find happiness regardless of your circumstances.

Calm is free to download, but will cost you US$60 a year after a seven-day free trial. I say to download the app and make the most of it in that seven days. Even if it does not improve your sleep, you will learn a thing or two about mindfulness.

The irony that I'm using my smartphone to help me relax is not lost on me. We use smartphones to connect to the world - interactions that can sometimes overwhelm and burden us. Calm, however, does the opposite. Its mission is to make the world healthier and happier - never mind through a digital platform.