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Stress-Free 2014: It's a Choice Between Digital Detox Versus Tech Apps

A new movement to unplug is underway at retreats and spas frequented by the industry, while Gwyneth Paltrow’s monk and Oprah Winfrey are getting into the meditation game with apps, online programs and goggles.

Peter Arkle

The Detox Solution

The late Timothy Leary's famous 1966 line, "Turn on, tune in, drop out," might have been worded very differently if he were alive and tweeting today. More likely, he'd be pleading with the hyperconnected masses to "Unplug and tune out," which is the battle cry of the newly flourishing Digital Detox movement and its device-free retreats, unplugged spa trips and electronics-banished nature junkets.

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Call it the new way to get off the grid. Some commitments are small -- Via Yoga, which hosts yoga retreats in Mexico and Costa Rica (viayoga .com), offers a 15 percent discount as an incentive for anyone willing to give up their iPhone, while The Oaks at Ojai (oaksspa.com) offers Unplugged Weekends, device-free stays that focus on hikes, spa treatments and meditation classes. For those prepared for a bigger commitment, The Ranch at Live Oak in Malibu is one of the most popular spots for entertainment-industry people looking to go cold techie. For a week or four days, guests hike, do yoga, and work out while ditching sugar, caffeine and clocks, as well as cellphones and electronic devices. (The retreats start at $3,800 for four days, with accommodations at Four Seasons Westlake Village; weeklong visits are $6,200 on-site in Malibu; theranchmalibu.com.)

"The notion of being 'unplugged' is an integral part of our program," explains Live Oak founder Alex Glasscock. "Eliminating digital devices helps to reset and clear the mind from the constant interruptions of texts, emails, deadlines -- which subtly create low-grade anxiety."

But there's nothing as stringent as the original Digital Detox retreat, founded by former event producer Levi Felix in Oakland in 2011. Felix had the clarity to see digital overload taking hold, particularly in Northern California. His company produces device-free events in the area and corporate retreats for tech companies called Camp Grounded (thedigitaldetox.org), a four-day summer camp for adults that accommodates 325 people. "Everyone has a personal brand right now," says Felix. "At Camp Grounded, you lose your brand -- you can't talk about work. These are not networking events. You connect with nature and interpersonal relationships through yoga, meditation, tai chi, wellness, mindfulness discussions, baking bread. And it's not just about something heartfelt -- this is a scientific way to improve your attention span." Authors Susan Maushart (The Winter of Our Disconnect) and William Powers (Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age) concur.

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To that end, Felix has created a program that offers the tools to get off the digital treadmill and connect "back to daily life," he says of the retreats, which start at around $500 a person. "The first step to Digital Detox: buy an alarm clock. Wake up alone -- without the entire world. If your phone is your alarm clock, you are inviting the entire world into your bedroom. You aren't thinking about who you are." Not only that, looking at a screen right before bed makes you release about 22 percent less melatonin -- the hormone that triggers you to go to bed -- say researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

It seems, temporarily at least, ditching one's devices has morphed into a very necessary new industry: "The Digital Detox movement is not only about disconnecting," says Felix. "It's about connecting. We need to think about how and why we're using these devices -- or they use us."

Adds Emerson College's Thomas Cooper, author of Fast Media, Media Fast: How to Clear Your Mind and Invigorate Your Life in an Age of Media Overload: "Media now takes eight hours of our day -- imagine what you could do with that much of your life back under your own control, rather than controlled by Madison Avenue, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood?"

Well, what if you can't commit to a five-star retreat or five days off? Experts recommend setting time limits for media consumption and keeping smartphones and computers out of the bedroom -- so you don't wake up to emails, and the immediate stress. Put that resolution in your iPhone tasks list now. -- MERLE GINSBERG

Technology That Relaxes

Apps for meditation? Hold on. Isn't meditation about getting rid of distractions? Technically, yes. It's about calming the mind to better focus on the present. But Headspace (headspace.com) employs a whatever-it-takes approach to incorporating mindfulness into your day. Co-created by Andy Puddicombe, a former monk who sounds more like a London hipster, the app delivers a different one of his guided meditations for a brief 10 minutes each day. Soothing prompts generate a bona fide calming effect (just ask Emma Watson, Samantha Barks and Gwyneth Paltrow) in the comfort of your home, office, mass transit commute or while waiting in the conference room for those chronically late colleagues. Offering a free, 10-day trial, Headspace ($15 a month, $96 a year) is ideal for novices, as it acknowledges some of the unpleasant sensations, such as restlessness, that can arise while meditating. Cute motion graphics that prep you for the series offer smart metaphors for what meditation is and does. Think: a periscope penetrating gray clouds to the blue skies above.

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Oprah Winfrey has been getting on the digital meditation bandwagon as well, pairing with wellness guru Deepak Chopra on the 21-Day Meditation Experience, a series of three online, 21-day sessions that include original guided meditations (which are free when originally streamed, $50 thereafter; oprah.com/meditation). Chopra touts meditation for its proven ability to reduce blood pressure, relax breathing and increase the release of telomerase, "which controls the length of your chromosomes and is a measure of your biological clock," he says. The next one starts in the spring.

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The Psio meditation goggles ($400, psiousa.com), created by a Belgian stress-management specialist, look like an accessory from a low-budget science fiction film and feel just as futuristic when you put them on and a program of light stimulation in neon colors starts on the inside surface of the lenses. Versions of these so-called light-and-sound machines have been around since at least the '80s; this latest device comes equipped with headphones and runs synchronized sequences of sounds and flashing lights paired with guided meditations ($20 each). Research into audiovisual stimulation has shown it can slow brain waves and help in alleviating stress and even ADHD, but there is criticism that a number of studies have had small samples or were poorly controlled. (And people suffering from certain conditions, such as epilepsy, should not try the Psio without consulting a physician.)

Perhaps the simplest device is one favored by DreamWorks co-chairman and CEO Stacey Snider. She recently bought multiple pairs of Bose's QuietComfort 20 ($300, bose.com)noise-canceling headphones, which are its new in-ear model. She long has used yoga as a way to de-stress and still practices it. "More recently, I've come to depend on technology," she says of the headphones. "I bring them with me everywhere! As soon as you turn them on, the world and its insistence fades. I can hear myself again." -- LAURIE PIKE AND DEGEN PENER

This story first appeared in the Jan. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

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