"Yoglers" at Google's campus take its weekly yoga class, conducted by Chief Evangelist for Brand Marketing.

Iterating on Mindfulness: Finding Calm in Silicon Valley

on Tuesday, Oct. 21st

A version of this story aired on NPR’s All Things Considered.

The annual Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco might be the only business convention in the city focused on slowing down. It brings in thousands of people for talks like “Technology and Healing” and “Three Steps To Build Corporate Mindfulness the Google Way.”

The San Francisco Bay Area has a decades-long history of embracing Eastern spirituality, and it’s also the longtime home of the tech sector. Yoga and meditation classes are popular with the region’s tech workers. Greeting his audience earlier this year, Wisdom 2.0 founder Soren Gordhamer told them, “Often in tech conferences and other conferences, speakers come out and they’re met with laptops open, and the speakers can’t feel you, can’t sense you, can’t be with you. So I have a lot of gratitude for the presence that you all bring.”

At Wisdom 2.0, attendees pay up to $2,500 each to learn how to better listen, connect, and observe in the course of a fast-paced life. And the conference is growing — just last week, a business-focused Wisdom 2.0 was held in New York.

Gopi Kallayil is a top executive at Google, and a regular speaker at the conference. In a Wisdom 2.0 talk this year, he demonstrated yoga postures that can be done anywhere from a hotel room to the workplace. At Google Headquarters in Mountain View, he teaches yoga every Monday afternoon to his “Yoglers,” a cohort that’s grown to a few dozen people since Kallayil began teaching these classes eight years ago.

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Kallayil’s official role at the company is Chief Evangelist for Brand Marketing, and he’s just as enthusiastic about Google’s culture as he is about yoga, which he learned at an ashram as a teenager in India. He says globally, hundreds of Google workers take part in some sort of relaxation or wellness practice on the job. Facebook and Twitter offer perks like these, too.

Kallayil said mindfulness practices could become popular with millions of Americans because they’re embraced by so many workers at the most successful tech firms. “These are seen as forward thinking companies that are driving massive amounts of change in short amounts of time. In many cases the brands behind those companies, whether it’s Google or HP or Yahoo or Facebook, all are iconic brands, and that gives it a certain legitimacy.”

In fact, a well-known mindfulness program called “Search Inside Yourself” began at Google. It draws on neuroscience, and promises to build skills that will boost workers’ performance and leadership. Companies from Genentech, to SAP, to Ford have used elements of the Search Inside Yourself program, and the company has a teacher training program to help disseminate the curriculum in the workplace. It’s a major selling point that Search Inside Yourself emerged from within Google’s celebrated corporate culture.

Anthony Williams, the founder of Empowerment Yoga, says he’s been hired by tech companies that are interested in how yoga can help their workers increase creativity, productivity, and ultimately, their bottom line. He starts with simple breathing practices that can be done while a worker sits in a boardroom chair. Even among purportedly open-minded Silicon Valley types, Williams says, he sometimes notices a resistance to learning Eastern wisdom practices, but “I let them know, this is not a religion. They call it ‘the yoga sciences.’”

He reassures tech workers that, “If you don’t have a religion, I’m not trying to give you one,” and tells them to think of yoga as a glass of water — “it goes with everything.”

But Williams acknowledged that the notion of divorcing yoga from its spiritual foundation might be disturbing to some teachers, including his own, who adhere to strict protocols. “Being here in the Bay has taught me to let go of that dogma,” he said. “You need to meet people where they are, period.”

Angel investor Jason Calacanis is also interested in re-contextualizing mindfulness in hopes of bring more Americans on board — as paying customers. He told me he’s been interested in mindfulness practices since seeing Star Wars as a kid, “because I actually thought the force existed.” He splits his time between Santa Monica and San Francisco, and said it makes perfect sense that the Bay Area has become the launchpad for Eastern wisdom practices to reach more Americans — inside their workplaces, and perhaps, on their phones.

“San Francisco is barely part of the United States,” he joked recently at his office near the city’s Tenderloin district. “The way people live here is as fringe as fringe gets. You have this massively open population and some number of them want to be high performers, and another number of them want to be enlightened, actually. So it’s a perfect storm for anything like yoga or meditation.”

Calacanis first tried meditation after learning about how elite athletes were using it to improve focus and awareness, but he says most people don’t believe in the science behind it. He sees this as a business opportunity. “I think the medical industry will embrace this at some point,” he opined, “because, I think people have reached the end of road when it comes to prescription drugs.

Calacanis says there’s no “national brand” for meditation, and that’s why he just invested $375,000 into Calm.com, a mobile app that delivers daily visualization exercises and positive affirmations. Its founder, Alex Tew, said relative to a website that delivers mindfulness tutorials, going to a medication class or reading a book about it are “high-friction.” He wanted to create an online experience that would give people exposure to the underlying concepts of mindfulness in short, two-minute meditations: “just give them a little taste.”

Calm.com and other guided meditation apps like Simply Being and Headspace are trying to capitalize on a potentially lucrative market — the roughly 90 percent of the American public that has yet to try mindfulness. But to others, the idea of Silicon Valley iterating on mindfulness seems like the ultimate irony.

At this year’s Wisdom 2.0, the protesters who are known for blocking tech buses marched onstage and unfurled a banner that read, “Eviction Free San Francisco” — hoping to bring their own ideas about compassion to interested tech workers.

Protestor Amanda Ream, who’s also a member of the East Bay Meditation Center, says tech firms’ impact on San Francisco rents can’t be reconciled with Buddhist practices of non-harm. “I really believe that tech companies are at the forefront of trying to create a new corporate culture, and that this is an awkward and painful process for them,” she told me. “I hope mindfulness and the teachings of the Buddha will help bring them to the table with people like us who are living right at the edges of the havoc that’s being created in the city of San Francisco right now.”

Ream says the Wisdom 2.0 organizers later sent protesters an email later saying they could have applied to host a workshop at the conference, which Ream says costs hundreds of dollars that her group doesn’t have. “I hope that we’ll see in the coming Wisdom 2.0, workshops that actually talk about critical issues facing our city.”

After a brief tussle during the conference disruption, the protestors were removed from the stage. The speaker whose session had been interrupted asked the crowd to check in with their bodies. “What’s our relationship to conflict, and how do we show up for it?,” he asked.

It was silent for a while, then applause broke out. Already, next year’s conference is almost halfway sold out.

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