Andy is just about the last thing you’d expect from someone who started a tech company–he’s a former Buddhist monk with a degree in Circus Arts.
Our conversation delves deep into his captivating life story, from first learning to meditate at 10 years old, to his experience traveling to the Himalayas and becoming a monk, to meeting his partner Rich Pierson and creating Headspace.
We also discuss the benefits of meditation and how they can be seen in WHOOP data, what Andy has learned from using WHOOP, and the many things he does to optimize his performance each day.
If you’re someone who meditates, this is a must listen. And if you’re not, it’s a great intro to meditation that I think can help you add value to your daily life.
3:11 – What Led to Starting Headspace? “The realization that there are a lot of people out there who are looking for ways to cope in life. Not just cope in terms of struggling with stress and sleep and those kind of things, but also to sort of optimize life as well.”
4:30 – Meditation at a Young Age. “It was with my mum. She’s pretty progressive. We had a sensory deprivation tank in our garage, she was running therapy classes and things, she started going to meditation classes when I was about 10 years old, and I just went along with her. … I really felt like I needed that grounding in my life, even at that age. I found that meditation for whatever reason gave me that opportunity to step back from the stuff that was going on in my life, the emotional pressures of growing up, and give me a greater sense of calm.”
6:35 – Becoming a Buddhist Monk. Andy was 22, in school, had a girlfriend and went out drinking a lot–not what you’d expect. “I hit a point where I felt I was quite regularly overwhelmed in my mind. … I just had this really strong feeling that I was never going to have that sense of peace and happiness I was looking for if I continued to study from a book.” He quit school and traveled to the Himalayas.
10:37 – Initial Experience. After “kind of a honeymoon period” when he first began, he realized how hard it was. “My knees hurt and it was a bit boring sometimes … at that stage I was just doing retreat, I was meditating from morning till evening. I could’ve probably found a slightly less steep on ramp. In retrospect I probably would’ve done it slightly differently.”
13:02 – Meditating 14 Hours a Day? “It varied, sometimes you’re in retreat and sometimes you’re not, when you’re not you can be doing 4-8 hours, but when you’re on retreat it’s 14-18 … I started off with a month [in retreat], then I did 3 months.”
14:08 – Effect on His Body. Andy was accustomed to working out 4 hours a day. “Immediately that got shut off, I felt like I might explode, I was so used to expending that energy and now I was just sitting there with my eyes closed.” But after a few months to adjust, “I started to experience a calm that I’d never experienced in my life.”
18:22 – Amazed by his Teachers. He still feels like a novice compared to some of them, who spent “10-20 years plus in retreat, not just living in the monastery, in retreat meditating. They don’t even lie down at night time, they sit in lotus, maybe sleep for a couple hours. For me that is mind-boggling. … It’d be amazing to get WHOOP on them.” Andy also learned a great deal of humility. “When I’ve met people like that I just experience an incredible sense of warmth from them, and kindness and acceptance. … [they’re] arguably more interested in your welfare than you are yourself.”
25:17 – Still a Student? “It’s a journey of a lifetime, I still think of myself as a student of mindfulness.” Andy mentions a Buddhist expression “beginner’s mind,” which is about keeping alive the freshness. “When we sit to meditate it’s as though we’ve never done it before.” He relates it to sports, and pro athletes like Tom Brady and Roger Federer continuing to learn and improve despite being all-time greats.
28:07 – Awareness as a Benefit of Meditation. “Most of the time we don’t know what’s going on in our own mind … we’re so busy we don’t see our minds clearly.”
29:52 – Layers of Thought. “The meditation wasn’t making me think more, I was just becoming more aware of all the thoughts in my mind.”
31:49 – Officially Becoming a Monk. “You make some commitments, you sign up to values and guidelines to create a framework that will allow you to find that stability of awareness and compassion in your life. There’s a rule book, but it’s less like rules, more like guidelines to live a healthy and happy life. … All in all I was away for 10 years.”
37:06 – Time in Moscow. “I was the only monk there, living in a city,” at a meditation center. “There was a real demand for people who wanted to meditate. … It was giving people the tools that would make a difference in their life.”
40:27 – Degree in Circus Arts. “Going back to England, that’s where my resume takes an unusual sort of twist.” He trained at a school of acrobatics during the day and wrote what became Headspace content at night. “I was like a grandpa [age 32] at the place … they even made me sign a contract saying ‘I’m really old, if I get injured it’s my fault.’”
42:46 – Re-Acclimation. “The human mind is the human mind wherever you are in the world. … It took a little bit of time, paying for things wasn’t so much fun.”
45:34 – Sleep Transition. What was it like to go from sleeping only 3-4 hours a night in the “sedative” environment of the monastery to suddenly being very active again and training like an athlete? “It [my body] needed more sleep, no question. … If we’re living in the busyness of the world, our brains are quite active, our bodies are often quite active, it simply requires more sleep.”
46:39 – Writing Headspace. “I didn’t even really know what I was writing for.” After writing for about 2 years, eventually it made sense and Andy realized “this is the direction I’d like to take it in.”
50:13 – An App? “I wasn’t sure which direction to take it and started out writing manuals for corporate work and to train people to teach meditation. Neither really excited me, and then I met my cofounder Rich [Pierson]. … We were both equally excited, very different skill sets, but very complementary skill sets.” Rich knew an app was the way to go. “The first time we met he said it should be the Nike+ of meditation.”
54:14 – What is Headspace? “Our vision is to improve the health and happiness of the world. We try to give people the tools they need to do that. For people who aren’t familiar with meditation and mindfulness it shows you in a really clear, easy down-to-earth way. How to learn those skills, and how to tackle areas of life that might be more challenging. … More recently we’ve added a sleep channel as well, very specific exercises for falling asleep at night.”
55:12 – A Familiar Voice. Andy’s is the voice you hear on Headspace, for the most part. “In doing sleep, what we didn’t want was people to associate my voice with falling asleep,” so they’ve brought in some others as well.
56:33 – What’s on his Phone? A Wall Street Journal article showed the WHOOP app. “Both myself and my wife are just massive fans … it’s not only held me accountable, it’s taught me a lot about how I train, how I could train better, how I could recover better, and a lot about my sleep as well.” Andy wishes he could compare WHOOP metrics from before and after going into the monastery. “I’d love to have that data.”
1:00:08 – Learnings from WHOOP. “More sleep doesn’t equal better rest necessarily.” He gets a lot of REM sleep, and also consistently good recoveries despite a low HRV. “If I can ensure that I’m well recovered and operating each day in that green zone, then I don’t really worry too much about it.”
1:01:25 – Daily Routine. He gets up just before 5 am, “I do an hour of cardio in the morning,” then goes to work and will meditate for 30-60 minutes. Andy does strength training 3 days per week and “occasionally” meditates before bed. “This really depends on the rhythm of family life. … One of the biggest takeaways from the monastery, as much as I encourage people to meditate, be flexible in the way that meditation comes into your life.”
1:08:14 – Does his Family Meditate? “My wife does, she didn’t for many years though, people were confused.” His four-and-a-half-year-old is also learning some basic stuff.
1:12:03 – Benefits of Meditation Seen in WHOOP Data. “I had no idea the impact it would have on professional athletes, It’s blown me away.”
1:13:54 – Meditation a Healthy Bridge to Visualization. “Otherwise it’s a bit like looking at an old-fashioned tv set that isn’t fully tuned and the picture is a little fuzzy.” Andy used visualization while prepping for acrobatic routines and sees his method as a valuable tool for athletes. “It’s a different kind of quality where you’re less concerned with the end goal and more focused on the present moment … then the outcome will take care of itself.”
1:18:56 – Travel Tips? “Maintain my same daily routine wherever I go.” He also meditates as soon as he arrives in a new place. “It grounds you … you almost want to let go of where you’ve come from.”
1:20:43 – Nutrition. “In our house, including the boys, we’re 95% vegan. … About 5-6 years ago I got cancer and off the back of that my wife and I did one year completely raw.”
1:21:50 – Lowest WHOOP Recovery. “Probably like an 18% … when I was still doing 9 sessions a week” working out.
1:24:17 – What’s New on Headspace? “Moving into areas beyond meditation … we’ve already done sleep, there’ll be other areas.” They are also launching in foreign languages and working towards FDA approval for Headspace Health. Check out Andy’s books, including The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness.
WHOOP Podcast listeners can get a free 30-day trial of the entire Headspace library by visiting headspace.com/whoop.