“I can’t think of another year where so many people have wanted to say good-bye to one year and begin the next,” poses Andy Puddicombe — and that sure tracks.
Considering this year began with raging wildfires in Australia and the impeachment of President Donald Trump, and it’s ending with an out-of-control, once-in-a-century pandemic, economic downturn, and housing crisis, any silver linings of the last 365 days are sadly overshadowed by, well, everything else. While the turning of the calendar year won’t make climate change or a gridlocked political system disappear, there is something that we can change in 2021: the way we respond to it all. That’s where Puddicombe’s new Netflix series, Headspace Guide to Meditation, comes in.
“Meditation is universal and it’s timeless. It’s been around for several millennia, and during that time, it’s helped many communities cope with many difficult things,” says Puddicombe. While it’s not a new line of conversation for the Buddhist monk-turned-tech entrepreneur, that guiding principal and the goal to make meditation and mindfulness more accessible are what have allowed he and co-founder Richard Pierson’s Headspace to grow into a popular app and multi-medium content company.
“When we started Headspace ten years ago, it was always about: How do we put Headspace in places you wouldn’t expect to find it?” he says. Recently, that’s led to initiatives like the company’s podcast division with Radio Headspace and its collaboration with Sesame Street, aptly titled Monster Meditation, in an effort to bring meditation into the home for kids and parents alike. Discussions to partner with Netflix began at the top of 2020, but the events induced by the COVID-19 pandemic just a few months later made that mission all the more urgent. (Headspace Guide to Meditation is produced by Vox Media Studios, owned by Vulture parent company Vox Media.)
In February 2020, Headspace celebrated a milestone of 2 million paid Headspace Plus subscribers. For an idea of just how much those subscribers have relied on the app through the pandemic, consider how downloads and usage have skyrocketed over the last nine months: Since mid-March, downloads are up by 20 percent, and zeroing in specifically on those first few weeks of the U.S. shutdown, the rate of app downloads doubled compared to pre-COVID numbers. Centers of focus for users across the board, however, have remained largely the same: stress, anxiety, and sleep (all of which saw record increases of time spent on their respective meditations).
“For me, that’s really telling,” says Puddicombe. “The fundamental human nature — the things that we tend to struggle in life with anyway—continue to be the same things, it’s just that they are amplified. People are feeling more stressed, more anxious, more out of control and finding it harder to get a restful night’s sleep. So it’s not that [the pandemic has] changed the specific content that people are using, it’s that they are using it more frequently, and we’ve seen a lot more people come into the community looking for ways to cope.”
But Puddicombe isn’t toasting his company’s good fortune just yet.
“Someone said to me earlier, ‘Oh, what an amazing year for Headspace, you must be so happy that so many more people are meditating,’” he continues. “I am happy that more people are meditating, but obviously people are coming to this because they’ve had such a difficult, challenging year. So it’s a strange feeling for the team. We’re happy that we’re able to reach more people, but we’re also aware that that’s at the cost of a really difficult year.”
That’s why Headspace Guide to Meditation’s January 1 premiere is situated to give viewers the skills needed to pause, to breathe, to clear their mind, and to take stock in themselves and those around them in the new year.
“We look at the show as a tool you can have in your toolkit in facing what is going to come,” says Morgan Selzer, Headspace’s head of content and executive producer on the animated series. “It’s not like we’re going to wave a magic wand and 2021 is going to be amazing, but how do we take care of our mind through this?”
All eight episodes of the animated series are a blend of storytelling, education, and actual meditation, each narrated by Puddicombe and running about 20 minutes in length. “We really hope there’s something in there for everyone,” Selzer says. Episode 101, “How to Get Started,” for instance, charts bits of Puddicombe’s own biography, telling how he became a monk after picking up his life and traveling Asia as a result of an unnamed personal trauma. Episode 102, “How to Let Go,” meanwhile, captures how consistent meditation can carry over into the rest of our lives; it cites Dr. Sara Lazar’s study on how one can physically reshape their brain through frequent meditation, enlarging the parts related to learning and memorization and diminishing those associated with anxiety and stress. And as if anticipating that such information will make you want to get started yourself, each installment wraps with a ten-minute guided session.
Why ten minutes? Puddicombe learned while working in the field that hourlong sessions were often too long for clients — “People would fall asleep and they’d get uncomfortable and fidgety.” It’s been determined in the intervening years that frequency is more important than duration. Daily practices of five to ten minutes while focusing on breathing allow most people to hit their relaxation response, “which is where our heart rate begins to slow down, our breathing begins to slow down, and we’re producing less harmful chemicals in our body,” Puddicombe explains. “That’s usually when the mind starts to feel a bit lighter and a bit calmer. So we’ve always tried to work within that framework, and we thought it was important to bring to the show, as well.”
While the series can be read as a sort of call and response to 2020 and the global pandemic at large, it’s also a product bred within it. “This was all happening in the middle of the shutdown during COVID,” explains Headspace executive producer Chad Mumm, Vox Media Studios’ SVP, Head of Entertainment. “It was clear we weren’t going to be able to go out into the world and shoot something, so what’s a way to bring this colorful world of your interior space and these personal stories and this history to life? Animation.”
Mumm and his team were already familiar with the constraints of a COVID production via their three-part Coronavirus, Explained series on Netflix. So they tapped industry vet Drew Takahashi as art director and hired four indie animation houses — Compost Creative, Strange Beast, Augenblick Studios, and Blink Industries — to get the job done. In the hope of completing the series in time for January 1, a condensed production schedule had episodes being turned around in six weeks, with all stages (from animatics to storyboarding to studio notes and more) happening near-simultaneously across episodes and animation houses, each of which were responsible for animating two installments.
“We had to make the show over and over again for each episode, because you’re working in a completely different style, they each have their own personal languages,” Takahashi says. “It made it interesting — and a lot of work!” Noting the challenges, though, he adds: “I think it’s important to say that no animators were harmed in the process of making this.”
In the new year, Headspace Guide to Meditation is just the beginning. Announced earlier this month along with the January 1 launch of Headspace’s inaugural series were a second series, Headspace Guide to Sleep, and an untitled interactive series that Selzer describes as a “combination of the two, serving a sort of bespoke experience to Netflix members.”
“When we are interested in getting into a space, we really want to enter it in a robust way, and finding a partner as great as Headspace just made sense for us to say, ‘Let’s spread the bets around,’” says Brandon Riegg, Netflix’s VP of Unscripted and Documentary Series. “The Netflix mandate is always to [be] sparking joy around the world, and so this is just another way to do that.”
“I think it mirrors what’s been happening on our own platform,” Puddicombe says of the production slate with Netflix. “Over the years, we obviously started off with meditation. About three years ago we started with sleep. About 18 months ago, we started mindful movement. There’s mindful eating coming, and mindful play. There’s opportunity to be mindful in any part of our day, so our hope is by presenting this series in this way, it’s more than just meditation; it’s, ‘How do we be mindful in every area of our life?’”
Further reflecting on how far Headspace has come in the last decade, Puddicombe says the first word to come to mind is “surreal.”
“I’ve been asked over the years whether meditation and mindfulness is a ‘fad’ and everything else. And, you know, I look at this as something that’s been going on for thousands of years. We are one very small piece in a very big puzzle, and I’m just really happy that I’m around at a time where we have this opportunity to get it out to as many people as we can.”