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Turn On, Tune In, Chill Out

Looks like there's finally an alternative to that Lagavulin double-matured scotch in your best crystal highball to get over another stressful day of golf.

In what has got to be the wackiest new sprout on the consumer electronics bush, solid-state electronics, processors and light-emitting diodes have conjoined to create a new generation of digital chill-out pods, unwindos or personal relaxers -- whatever you want to call them.

These portable gadgets track your breathing, heart rate and other bodily functions to tell you -- get this -- whether you are in or out of the mellow zone.

The amazing part? In my testing at least, these gadgets actually work.

And they offer an alternative to structured meditation, cognitive therapy and in a pinch, even exercise.

I'm calling the trend as I see it: The digital age has finally merged with getting in touch with your inner self.

The Birth of Biofeedback

Relaxation technology got smeared by the biofeedback moniker in the 1970s.

Back then, biofeedback ranked right up there with aromatherapy and cosmic crystals for efficacy: something nut jobs in Santa Cruz did after a Grateful Dead concert.

But believers in the technology were undaunted.

Biofeedback backers sponsored a round of studies that showed that elucidating a user's own breath rate, heart rate, skin temperature and other metrics could be a powerful tool to manage stress.

"We as an industry got ourselves out of the woo-woo phase when we decided to treat biofeedback as a science," says Thomas Cobb, co-founder of lifematters.com, a biofeedback company in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Still, early relaxation devices from the '80s and '90s tended to be expensive and complex.

These older biofeedback tools required professional supervision in controlled environments that were costly and, frankly, kind of spooky: Patients went to an office to be wired up with strange devices and then were asked to try to modify their breathing, heart rate and brain pattern to manage their anxiety

I don't know about you, but I am far too stressed out to find time in my day to go to an office, get hooked up to a bunch of wires, and do nothing but try to relax.

A Brave New World

Enter modern computer chips and electronic circuitry.

Digital technologies boiled down complex biofeedback paraphernalia into portable and easy-to-use tools -- some of which are positively elegant.

Now, virtually anyone can carry a device that monitors heart rate and breathing. It can show users how they are reacting to stress, and even, with time, how to better manage life in this stressful shuffle on the mortal coil.

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