A few years ago, when I was stressed and suffering from insomnia, a concerned friend recommended a meditation app called Headspace. ‘You’ll love the bloke, Andy, who does it,’ she said knowingly. ‘His voice is lush.’
She was right. Listening to his voice in my hour of need was the closest I came to being unfaithful. He didn’t just set my mind at ease but, as I lay beside my sleeping husband, closing my eyes and listening to Andy Puddicombe, a former monk turned Headspace founder, I fell a little in love. I gather from my friends that I was not alone.
So when I heard that Headspace had moved into sex and relationships, offering audio guided meditations and educational video content which promises ‘more mindful’ and, therefore, better sex, my shameless first thought was that Andy was going to talk dirty to me.
To which I immediately said: yes, yes, yes! Sadly, I was wrong. There are three hours of new material, but none of it is voiced by Andy. Even without his dulcet tones, however, I was intrigued. My sex life with my husband of 24 years, Anthony, isn’t exactly in the doldrums, but, like most couples jugglings jobs and families, it can sometimes be hard to find the time or the energy. Could mindfuless in the bedroom be the chance to avoid a midlife sex drought?
Meditation app Headspace has moved into the sex and relationship sphere. UK-based journalist Susannah Jowitt puts the app to the test with her husband Anthony (both pictured)
If you’re going to use a mindfulness app to turbo-charge your bedroom antics, this is surely the one to try. Headspace is the M&S of apps — downloaded by 100 million people in 190 countries, since its launch a decade ago. It played a key role in ushering in the era of mindfulness, a practice now so mainstream it is recommended by the NHS to tackle stress, anxiety and depression.
Headspace already encourages its acolytes to eat, work, parent and deal with their finances mindfully, so what’s left but to take a more zen, in-the-moment approach to what goes on between the sheets?
I clock that the new sex content is found in the Women’s Collection area of the app and my excitement cools to slight annoyance. There is no corresponding Men’s Collection.
Are women the only ones meant to do the legwork to improve our sex lives; another task to be added to our to-do lists?
What’s more, it turns out that the neuroscience of sex for men and women is strikingly different. Put simply, sexual response for a man is basically about hydraulics and the flow of blood to the nether regions. The brain doesn’t get much of a look-in. But for women, sex — and particularly, orgasm — is all about aligning the neurochemical stars.
We have to be relaxed and feel safe — less cortisol (fight, flight), more dopamine and oxytocin (pleasure) — and we cannot orgasm unless the amygdala (the area in the brain that deals with anxiety and fear) is deactivated. For women, sexual turn-on requires switching off, which is where the mindfulness comes in.
My husband is titillated… until he realises mindful sex isn’t the same as mindless sex
To deactivate the amygdala, women need to stop thinking so much: the amygdala is revved up by stress, multi-tasking and, especially, anger. If you’re cross with your partner for not taking out the bins, you will take between three and ten times longer to reach orgasm.
I retire to the bedroom at 10pm, and, sitting up in bed, put on my headphones. When I explain to my husband what I am doing, he is initially titillated — until he realises that mindful sex is not the same as mindless sex, and that I need to concentrate on myself, not him.
‘Not tonight, darling,’ I purr to him, ‘but [hopefully] the wait will be worth it…’
First up, I listen to someone called Eve, who promises to guide me through five nightly 15-minute sessions of Intimacy In Relationships over the week.
Her body-scan technique — the classic meditation approach of starting at your toes and ending with your hairline, ‘checking in’ with each part of your body in turn, noting how it feels and relaxing it — is the touchstone of all the sessions. So, too, is her championing of ‘loving, kind curiosity’ and her gentle questioning — ‘What do you notice?’ — all of which call to mind my early Headspace crush, with Andy sexily asking me the same thing.
For women, sexual turn-on requires switching off, which is where the mindfulness comes in
Eve’s explanation is that by first achieving a mind-body connection by yourself, you’re well on the road to cultivating a loving relationship with your own body which, in turn, sets you up for feeling happy about being intimate with your partner. All of which finally leads you to mindful, mind-blowing sex.
It all sounds a bit of a faff, to be honest. I stay committed, however, and the next night am back with Eve for another session.
This time we’re on foreplay, which she tells me is more about emotional ‘connections’ made over time than the overtly sexual stroking of erogenous zones when you feel like a roll in the hay. Is it, Eve?
It centres on rediscovering the senses: lingering in a hug for a little longer than you usually would to feel the oxytocin warming its way through you; leaning into the fumes of a glass of wine, savouring the umami tang of a sliver of Parmesan
After five sessions with Eve, totalling an hour and a quarter of building awareness and taking on board her rather gentle recommendations, the closest I’ve come to actual sex was session four when you’re finally allowed to hug your partner and walk in nature, holding hands. To be honest, I am more mind-numbed than mind-blown.
I now get to psychosexual therapist Kate Moyle’s Cultivating Sexual Wellness video, which is a total change of pace — all bright colours and floating graphics. Kate is blonde and intimidatingly beautiful. I can’t imagine her sex life ever needs a boost, but she certainly seems to have studied the subject at length.
For Kate, mindful sex is simply one of the four pillars of sexual wellness, the other three being pleasure, body confidence and communication. As the fourth pillar, mindful sex is about staying in the moment, switching off the mind from quotidian worries and combining that with a steely focus on your own sensuality.
How to meditate your way to yes, yes, yes!
1. Practise pleasure outside of your sex life first. Familiarity breeds confidence and it will be easier for you to incorporate the techniques into sexual wellness.
Make a pleasure journal where you jot down a few things in your day that give you pleasure — whether it’s the feeling of a soft jumper, a delicious meal or listening to your favourite song. Taking a note of these little things is good practice for building awareness of pleasure in your body.
2. Focus on your breathing — it’s something you can do anywhere, any time.
Techniques like box breathing — breathe in, hold, breathe out, hold — activate the parasympathetic nervous system, signalling to your body to calm down. It can also help you to focus on what you’re feeling in your body.
3. Use your senses. They are the gateway to how you experience things. Play with the senses to help you tune into how you are feeling and what’s going on.
Whether it’s listening to something that makes you feel sexy, spraying yourself with a favourite perfume or playing with touch and texture — there are so many ways you can help yourself feel more comfortable.
You can either do this on your own or incorporate playing with the senses into a game with your partner. Using an eye mask or a blindfold is the perfect way to heighten your other senses.
by psychosexual therapist Kate Moyle
Can’t we just get on with it? But, actually, it is surprisingly effective. It centres on rediscovering the senses: lingering in a hug for a little longer than you usually would to feel the oxytocin warming its way through you; noticing the feel of the bedsheet underneath you; running your hand lightly up your own arm, leaning into the fumes of a glass of wine, savouring the umami tang of a sliver of Parmesan. Or, in old money, all the ingredients for a good date night.
Next up on Headspace is Shan Boodram, a certified sexologist who has written for Playboy and boasts 70 million YouTube views for her sex advice videos. There are three by her here.
She’s like that ballsy best friend who isn’t afraid to tell you you’re showing too much cleavage. She has a fun way of delivering some pithy advice on topics including communicating your desire and how to get through conflict with the one you love. She encourages you to keep conversations about pleasure playful. If you want to introduce something new, she suggests saying something like: ‘I had a dream about this the other night, I’d be curious to see how we could incorporate it.’
So to the million-dollar question: does it all work? After two weeks of checking in with Headspace every night, finishing the sex and relationships offerings and putting in my own time on meditative body scans and mindful sensuality checks, I can, indeed, feel the magic of Headspace working on my head. And my body. I genuinely do like myself — and my body more — and feel happy and confident.
I am ready to ‘communicate my desires and needs’ to my gorgeous husband…who is beside me, fast asleep. I summon my new-found zen and try not to mind too much.
During the day I talk to him about the progress I’m making. We’ve always had a healthy sex life, even if it’s not very racy. Like most middle-aged, middle-class couples, our sex talk is often hedged by euphemism and vagueness — yes, I like this, oooh more of that — making our desires known to each other in our own private code. But Headspace has given me an urge to shake things up and try something new. Unsurprisingly, he is up for that.
Yet there is instantly a problem. My new calm is tested by his sniggering. He disdains the ‘woo-woo’ vocabulary I parrot from Headspace and pulls a face when I explain Eve’s foreplay theories.
‘Talk about pressure,’ he mutters. Neither does he take up my offer of a discount code to access the app himself. But soon I realise that, in expecting him to match me, I’m missing the point. And it is now that I fully realise why mindful sex is in the Women’s Collection on Headspace.
What Eve, Kate and Shan offer is the chance for me to achieve mindful sex and, for women, that isn’t just half the battle, it is the whole war. For women, getting out of your head and into your body — the rather more male attitude to sex, in fact — does, indeed, produce greater pleasure in bed. I know because I’ve now tried it.
For men, already happy to turn off the daily to-do list in favour of more carnal pleasures, the same calmness of mind is apparently not necessary. As long as I tell him what I want, which I do; trust him, which I do; fancy him, which I do; and am mindful and relaxed myself, then, bingo, we’re off to the races.
Switching off, it turns out, really is the way to turn it on. Now if only Andy could do a sex video, too.
- Headspace can be purchased both annually (£49.99) and monthly (£9.99). You can also access a 14-day FREE trial.
And if the woo-woo doesn’t work…
Festive sex? It’s usually the last thing on my mind — until I heard about erotic Advent calendars.
While those with luxurious beauty products behind 24 cute little doors are the norm, the arrival of calendars with a different accessory for all the days of Christmas is intriguing.
Could this be the antidote to all those domestic chores, or is it yet another hideous corruption of a sweet Christmas tradition, one which would leave me with a pile of plastic toys?
Seven Day Lingerie Calendar (£50, lovehoney.co.uk)
A black-and-gold box tied with a black ribbon, this is the most stylish calendar, with scanties in each of its drawers.
As for the contents, I found them exhausting. Must I really slip into a sheer mesh bra with satin ribbons straight after the school carol service? Do I have to truss myself up in a satin body after stuffing the turkey?
These felt like gifts for my husband more than me, and call me selfish, but I’ll take a sex toy over a suspender belt any day.
This isn’t the erotic calendar for a harassed middle-aged mum, although I can certainly imagine it thrilling a twentysomething trying to find a Jude Law for the holidays. 3/5
The Twelve Nights of Sensuality (£112.50, annsummers.com)
With 12 individual boxes in a metallic purple-and-gold box, opening this calendar was a treat from the off. I could tell this was putting my pleasure first — after all, it’s me, not my husband, who needs a reward after a gruelling hunt for the last bag of cranberries in the supermarket.
An aphrodisiac bubble bath and body lotion behind doors three and five add to a feeling of luxurious eroticism. But what I liked best about this box, alongside the ‘self-love tokens’ which I’d use for a nap rather than anything more exciting, was that Ann Summers knows what every parent really wants at Christmas is a toy with batteries included.
While the other calendars contained devices which needed charging — a challenge with my children prowling the house for sweet treats — three of the four included in this calendar had AA batteries already inside. 5/5
Twelve Days of Play (£194.99, lovehoney.co.uk)
Encased in a sassy hot-pink box, Love Honey clearly want you to have fun with this calendar. Definitely one to keep hidden under the bed — all the toys are a world away from the kind of discreet gadgets favoured by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, which can cleverly be mistaken for a hand-sculpted pebble.
But this was the most sexually playful calendar. Although I’m not sure I will be using the erotic dice, overall it amounted to a sexy bag of tricks to titillate and excite during even the most frazzled Christmas break. 4/5