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In Silicon Valley, Paying For Access To Peace Of Mind


The San Francisco Bay area, birthplace of the 1960's hippie movement, has a history of embracing Eastern spirituality. It's also home to the high-tech sector. Here's where they intersect - in the yoga and meditation classes popular with the region's tech workers. Some even see investment opportunities in spirituality. But as reporter Nishat Kurwa reports, not everyone's at peace with that.

NISHAT KURWA, BYLINE: 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." Here's conference founder Soren Gordhamer greeting his audience earlier this year.


SOREN GORDHAMER: 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.

KURWA: At Wisdom 2.0, presence doesn't come cheap. 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 brand marketing 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.


GOPI KALLAYIL: Inhale, reach up and arch back.

KURWA: Kallayil studied yoga at an ashram in India as a teenager. And here at Google headquarters in Mountain View, he teaches yoga every Monday afternoon.


KALLAYIL: Exhale and drop down.

KURWA: Kallayil says, globally, hundreds of Google workers take part in some sort of wellness practice on the job. Facebook and Twitter offer similar perks. Kallayil thinks mindfulness practices could become popular with millions of Americans because they're embraced by so many workers at the most successful tech companies.

KALLAYIL: Whether it's Google or Yahoo or HP or Facebook, are all iconic brands and all of that gives it a sort of legitimacy.

JASON CALACANIS: I think the medical industry will embrace this at some point because people right now have, I think, reached the end of the road when it comes to prescription drugs.

KURWA: That's Jason Calacanis, a West Coast tech investor who thinks meditation presents a business opportunity. He just invested $375,000 into - a mobile app that lets you turn to your smartphone for daily visualization exercises and positive affirmations.

CALACANIS: You could do it at any time. You could do it at any duration. You could do it at any frequency. And you could have a range of different teachers to find the right one.

KURWA: Guided meditation apps, like Simply Being and Headspace, are also trying to get consumers to pay for access to peace of mind. But to others in this region, the idea of Silicon Valley iterating on mindfulness seems like the ultimate irony. They just aren't buying it.


AMANDA REAM: San Francisco not for sale. San Francisco not for sale.

KURWA: At this year's Wisdom 2.0 conference, protesters who are tired of wealthy tech workers driving up rents, got on stage and unfurled a banner that read eviction-free San Francisco. Protester Amanda Ream says she wants to tell tech firms that their impact on San Francisco rents can't be reconciled with Buddhist beliefs about non-harm.

REAM: I hope that 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.

KURWA: After Ream and her fellow protesters were removed from the Wisdom 2.0 stage, a conference speaker posed a question.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What's our relationship to conflict? And how do we show up for it?

KURWA: The room was silent for a while, then erupted in applause. The next Wisdom 2.0 conference isn't until February, and already, it's almost halfway sold out. For NPR News, I'm Nishat Kurwa.

CORNISH: That story was produced by - a tech news and digital culture site from Youth Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nishat Kurwa

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