Katherine Boehret

Breathe, Relax, Repeat: Devices for Inner Peace

Breathe in energy and positivity. Breathe out distractions and bad feelings. Envision a calm place and let yourself go there.

Who are you kidding? You’re probably racing to or from work along with hundreds of other people and the anxiety level you feel is indescribably high. You may want to try to meditate or center yourself in stressful situations like these, but never actually remember to do it.

This week, I tested two sensors that might help: the $99 HeartMath Inner Balance Sensor for iOS and $119 Tinké by Zensorium. Each device plugs into Apple’s iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, and digitally monitors heart rate and breathing patterns, offering on-screen coaching to get you into a calmer zone.

While a traditional heart monitor often just spits out a number, both the HeartMath Inner Balance and Tinké provide feedback as you use them. People who meditate regularly but don’t know whether or not their heart and breathing are reacting to their meditations will get some specific answers with these devices and apps. Both of these free apps offer ways to save results and share them via email or social networks. Using them taught me how to lower my heart rate and steady my breathing.

The HeartMath sensor is the company’s first mobile device after years of working only on computers. One end clips to an earlobe, resembling a Bluetooth headset from afar, and uses an infrared sensor to see blood flowing through the skin and measure heart-rate variability. The other end attaches to an iOS device.

The company suggests spending 10 to 15 minutes with this app in the morning to prepare for the day and 10 to 15 minutes at night to get settled before sleeping. It measures what HeartMath calls coherence—an algorithm applied to heart-rate variability, which the company says can reflect emotional states and stress levels.

In stressful situations, I watched the screen register my low coherence level with a red icon, but I gradually learned how to get into the zone of high coherence, which is represented by a green icon.

I tried this for several days in the morning and at night, and found myself looking forward to my time with the app. I also tried it at different times of the day, including after a quick walk at lunch and while riding the subway home.

The first time you use HeartMath, helpful slides walk you through how the product works. You can switch between several views to focus on during a session: a flower pulsing in and out with your breaths; a shade that lifts and lowers as you breathe; a photo of a waterfall, which you can change to an image you’d like to stare at; or a statistical screen showing heart-rate variance, coherence over time, pulse and a spectrum analysis of heart rhythms. Relevant coaching phrases pop up to encourage you. Some included, “Breathe through the heart area” and “Excellent! You’re in high coherence!”

During setup, I was never asked for my gender or age, but a company spokeswoman said it plans to add these personalized levels later this year. Early next year, the company plans an Android version and a wireless version of the sensor.

The Tinké (pronounced “tink”) by Singapore-based Zensorium is a tiny sensor that comes in white, gray, pink or blue. After downloading its app, I was invited to use it as a guest, or by creating a new account. I tried guest mode and later created my own account, where session scores were saved. Even as a guest, I was prompted to enter my age and gender for a more accurate reading.

I plugged the sensor into my iPad, which made its infrared light glow. On-screen instructions told me to place my thumb over the light, and I waited while Tinké measured either my Zen Index or Vita Index. The Zen Index uses heart-rate variability to quantify stress levels in a simplified manner, according to the company. The Vita Index is a cardio-respiratory score that looks at heart rate, blood-oxygen level and respiratory rate (the number of breaths per minute).

I started with testing my Zen Index, which I did by breathing in time with one of five circle patterns that appeared on the screen, each pulsing at different paces. In just a few minutes, my score out of 99 points was displayed: “Calm, 57/99 points. Doing well. Keep calm and carry on practicing your breathing to improve.” When I tested my Vita Index, my score said: “Fresh, 84/99 points. Looking good! Your heart rate, respiratory rate and blood oxygen level are within normal ranges. Stay motivated!”

Fun factoids appeared on the screen while I used the Tinké sensor. One said, “Did you know? Your right lung takes in more air than your left.” Another said, “Eating fish helps lower your risk of depression.”

I chose a “Shout” icon in the app to share results with Tinké users but I could also share my results via Facebook. Tinké awards badges for activities and gives users extra points when they measure their Vita Index three times daily. There’s a leaderboard of all users, which might motivate people even more.

If you’re curious about your heart-rate variability and the other data that can be gleaned from it, I’d recommend the HeartMath Inner Balance for a comprehensive approach.

Email katie.boehret@wsj.com

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