Meditation may be simple, but it is not easy. If you’ve tried it, you know. Simply sitting still can be a challenge for an energetic, easily distracted person like me. But the really hard part is just being with my own mind, seeing the nonsense, trivia, and mean girl pettiness that keeps going through my head.
By now we’ve all heard that meditation is good for us. It is a powerful stress reliever with serious benefits for the brain and body. Meditation can help lower heart rate and blood pressure, increase emotional resilience and improve sleep. The trick is that you actually have to must, and not just think about it. Or do it for just two minutes and give up because your brain refuses to calm down and focus on the damn breath.
That’s why a gadget like Sensate is so attractive. The sleek, black, vibrating ellipse, which can be worn around the neck or placed on the chest, is not a meditation device per se, but a relaxation tool designed to stimulate the vagus nerve, the hottest nerve in wellness right now. . In recent years, many wellness practitioners have focused on the vagus nerve as a potential gateway to nirvana.
In reality, the vagus nerve is a cranial nerve that connects the brain to other major biological systems, including the heart, lungs, gut, and endocrine system. It is also an important lever for activating the parasympathetic nervous system, a light, relaxed physical and mental state that is the opposite of fight or flight. Stress triggers fight or flight. The vagus nerve helps us cool down.
When I heard about Sensate from a friend, I immediately became curious. I’ve learned a lot about the vagus nerve studying wellness science, and this device sounded like a great way to approach it. I’m not tech savvy, but as a health and wellness coach I’m interested in new ways to relax and de-stress. The makers of the Sensate, which costs $299, sent me a device to try out for a month.
Sensate works by connecting wirelessly to a companion music player app. The makers claim that the device uses “infrasonic resonance” and special soundtracks to soothe and tone the vagus nerve to help regulate the nervous system. All you have to do is lie down, place the Sensate stone on your chest, put on your headphones and start a session with your phone.
When I did, the stone on my sternum immediately began to vibrate. The creators of Sensate love the feeling of a cat purring. As a lady who has lived all her life, I can tell you that they are not exactly the same. I don’t know what a cat’s purr sounds like to a cat, but to an outside listener it’s a steady, gentle purr. Sensate is more dynamic: sometimes its movement is steady. Or it pulses continuously. In other cases, it vibrates for several seconds in a row. Later, the vibrations could be fast and short-lived.
Sensate’s oscillation coordinates with more than a dozen different instrumental tracks on the accompanying app. Double that if you’re a Sensate Plus subscriber. These entries vary in length from 10 to 30 minutes and are divided into specific categories, such as nature, sacred spaces, and space and time.
I initially started with 10 minutes of “Be Sensate”, which combines singing with clattering piano keys and chirping birds. I closed my eyes and listened. I felt chest vibrations rumbling through my ribcage. I tried practicing mindfulness while lying down. The Sensate site says nothing about mindfulness, but it seemed like the perfect opportunity to tap into the popular modality.
Mindfulness is commonly defined as paying attention to present moment experiences with openness and non-judgment. That’s what I actually try to do when I meditate. The sensations of the present moment might be my breath coming in and out, maybe the sounds outside my house, or maybe the constant chattering of my inner thoughts.
With the Sensate device, there was much more to pay attention to in the moment: my breath, yes, but also the music in my ears and the vibrating doodad on my chest. Of course, my mind still wandered. Is kimchi still a probiotic if you cook it? How do I start my article for Shondaland? Should I make zucchini muffins this weekend? As with meditation, as soon as I realized I was distracted, I brought my attention back to the experiences of the present moment, which Sensate offered with its grounding pulses.
Since the first 10 minutes of using the Sensate was fine, I thought another 20 minutes would be better. I set Sensate’s app to “H2Ohm,” which combines synths, sitar, and running water. I then moved on to “Forest”, which mixes flute, birdsong, crickets and more water sounds. I would have loved to try “Darwin’s Octopus” just for the unusual title, but it was only available to Sensate Plus members.
Twenty minutes with Sensate was much easier for me than 20 minutes of simple breathing meditation. I’ll be honest: I rarely meditate on the breath for 20 minutes. When I started practicing meditation a few years ago, I set a timer for two minutes. I made it to 15 and I consider that a triumph.
I found it much more appealing to try a Sensate session at noon than to spontaneously go and meditate, which I usually only do once in the morning. I also found it to be a great alternative to the afternoon disco nap, which I usually don’t try because I’m afraid I won’t be able to fall asleep fast enough to make the 20 minute nap worthwhile.
One big difference I noticed with Sensate compared to my regular meditation was a deep sense of physical relaxation. Of course, my brain was still buzzing, but my body was completely relaxed – heavy and relaxed. When I practice mindfulness, I sometimes feel nervous.
Sensate is not the only new vagal vibration device on the market. there is a Xenwhich uses electronic stimulating headphones to engage the vagus nerve through the ears. Truvaga is a handheld device that stimulates the vagus nerve through the neck in approximately two minutes. Also, there is Opus SoundBed, which uses low-frequency vibrations and sound to force the nervous system into a state of rest and digestion. Some of these devices stimulate the vagus nerve, while others, like Sensate, aim to tone it.
None of these external devices are required for true stimulation of the vagus nerve. We can do it ourselves — for free! — by humming, singing, chanting, deep breathing, meditation, aerobic exercise, laughing, or feeling compassion and connection with other people.
Sensate can be redundant. At $299 (or $349 with a Sensate Plus subscription), it’s definitely a splurge. But it’s a neat little device that seemingly does what it promises. And anything that can relax me without the downside—no bleary-eyed mornings after late-night TV binges or surprise packages arriving after drunken online shopping—is an upgrade.
Sandy Cohen is a health and wellness coach based in Southern California, host Inner peace to go podcast and writer of the monthly Shondaland series The road to prosperity. Follow her on Instagram @YouKnowSandy.
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