Why would some of the sharpest minds in and around Silicon Valley stop working and inventing long enough to explore introspective practices like yoga and meditation? Perhaps because we're talking about exactly that: the thinking of some very sharp minds.
Yoga and meditation, after all, offer tech execs, managers, and engineers the same benefits they offer the rest of us: the ability to stay calm amid a storm of emails and projects; the perception that work is only part of a broader existence; the chance to reset and start each day anew. To this end, many tech companies offer their employees yoga and meditation along with a variety of other holistic wellness benefits. The 35-year-old biotechnology pioneer Genentech, which was first to discover how to synthesize both human insulin and growth hormone, sponsors in-house mindfulness programs. The productivity software start-up Asana offers employees individual and group yoga classes. The social network gaming company Zynga, which brought you FarmVille and CityVille, among other games, pays for reflexology and nutrition advice in addition to yoga and meditation classes. Such investments are made in particular to help employees achieve that elusive state of mind where inspiration and great work come relatively quickly and easily.
"For all the CEOs trying to create billion-dollar companies, I have some advice: One key to success is the subtle art of teasing out people's enlightened states," says Eric Schiermeyer, co-founder of Zynga. "I think leaders need to promote the methods that bring out such key qualities in a workforce."
Schiermeyer doesn't go so far as to claim a linear relationship between, for example, practicing asana and coming up with a new and improved version of a product like CityVille. But, he insists, "every time you have insights into your work, you're taking advantage of the process of consciousness that these practices are proven to enhance."
Earlier in his career, Schiermeyer, who helped propel Zynga into last summer's billion-dollar initial public offering, spent years working 18-hour days, gulping down Red Bulls, and staring at computer screens. A bleeding ulcer and hospitalization made him pause and reflect on his lifestyle. A martial arts practitioner since college, Schiermeyer ultimately turned to a regular meditation and yoga practice as part of a commitment to live a more balanced life.
Increased productivity aside, lots of high-level techies turn to yoga and meditation because, by itself, the tech industry cycle of innovate, dominate, and wealth-create doesn't add up to a satisfying existence. These power players have come to understand that cultivating an inner life brings calm and consciousness that make their everyday existence, in and out of business meetings, with or without laptop or cell phone in hand, far more gratifying.
"By itself, my work provides a lot of excitement, stress, and material fulfillment," says Kallayil, the Google marketing manager who practices being fully present and attuned at red lights. "But there continues to be a hole in one's existence, a yearning that I believe can be filled via wisdom traditions."
Kallayil began teaching yoga on the company's Mountain View campus in 2006. In good weather, a dozen or more "yoglers," as he and his yoga-practicing colleagues call themselves, will enjoy class outside on a slab of sun-warmed cement surrounded by long green reeds and near a fountain that sounds like a babbling brook. Virtually no deadline or work matter keeps Kallayil from teaching the Monday evening class.
In his own yoga practice, Kallayil allows himself to get lost in the rhythms of breathing and familiar movements. These moments of simplification, of distilling life down to breath and motion, compose him, he says, and inform his behavior when he reenters the frenetic pace of the multitasking-minded world of technology.
"More and more, I find myself preferring to do one thing and do it well," says Kallayil. "I go to a meeting and see that others have three or four chats going on on their screens. Instead, I appreciate what's going on in front of me. In the end, maybe 90 percent of the information popping up onto my screen won't serve me in the moment anyway."
Kallayil does his best to share this perspective with yoglers beyond Google's sprawling Silicon Valley campus. He leads Google yoga classes around the world when company business takes him to satellite offices in places like Beijing, Buenos Aires, and Tokyo. While teaching, he encourages his students to distill their thoughts and actions, however briefly, down to what is necessary in that moment. He promotes the idea that navigating life via one's internal compass can help us all to "get past the fear that being temporarily disconnected means you're out of the loop."
Kallayil has twice escorted groups of a dozen or more yoglers to weekend retreats at a Sivananda ashram in Grass Valley, California, where they eat, meditate, and practice asana together. Shockingly, some of the yoglers take a break from their email while they're away, which allows them to be more present with their teachers and fellow visitors at the ashram. Many of the yoglers, Kallayil says, learn from the experience that presence equals a different kind of connection.
Google vice president Bradley Horowitz, who oversees hugely popular communications products like Gmail and the new social network Google+, says he meditates regularly "to let go of any sense of life's work ever being done." Horowitz knows all too well that there will always be more to do, whether in his meditation practice or in an effort to please the millions of Internet-surfing consumers who use his products around the globe, 24/7.
"There's no point at which I can go to sleep with the world in order," he says. And so while Horowitz works very hard, he unhesitatingly uses words like "surrender" and "trust" to characterize his feelings about an ever-evolving inner life and an external life filled with work demands and a flood of emails, texts, and data.
Words to Text and Call By
So what can you learn from the technology industry about bringing consciousness to your relationship with the digital universe? About maintaining presence and inner connection in a world designed to pull you, in every waking moment, outside of yourself?
First of all, you needn't surrender your iPad, smartphone, or laptop. You can live with the latest technology and still have a connected inner life. Presenters at last year's Wisdom 2.0 conference offered attendees suggestions for bridging the two worlds. Take a segmented approach to work—intense spurts of productivity interspersed with reflective downtime. Let your cell phone ring several times before you answer, and then give the call your full presence. Let some of your email go unanswered. And evaluate your relationship with technology instead of blaming it when you feel distracted.
Start With One Breath
But perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from Silicon Valley's titans of digital technology is this: If these folks can make time in their day for yoga and meditation, so can you. At last year's Wisdom 2.0 conference, Kallayil described how he had once set a goal for himself of performing 60 minutes of yoga and 30 minutes of meditation per day. But he found himself too encumbered by work commitments, and he failed. Then someone suggested that Kallayil start with "one breath." He realized that meditating, even for an hour, was nothing if not hundreds of single breaths strung together.
"I committed: 'Every day I will do one minute of yoga and one minute of meditation.' This sounds ridiculous," he said, "but something shifted inside of me, because there's no day that I don't have 60 seconds."
Kallayil did it for a week, and then for a month. After a while, his sessions went longer. He'd sit on the cushion and say, "What am I rushing off to? What is more important than this?"
Apparently, just about nothing else.
Andrew Tilin is the author of The Doper Next Door: My Strange and Scandalous Year on Performance Enhancing Drugs.
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