By Sharon Simonson
SAN MATEO—A Silicon Valley tech executive who exited the corporate fast lane in 2011 to study yoga in The Himalayas has returned bearing new insights that she believes can enhance worker productivity, creativity, innovation and happiness.
Samya Boxberger-Oberoi never expected to write a book on yoga, to spend three-and-a-half months in an ashram or to see her life come full circle when she left Lab126, the research and development arm of Amazon, where she helped develop the Kindle e-reader for international buyers.
But four years after her departure, she published “The Philosophy and Science of Yoga: The Power of Self-Expression 5,000 Years in the Making” exclusively on the Kindle. Friends say it is the doctoral dissertation she never finished. She says it culminates her life’s work thus far.
For research, she drew on the linguistics knowledge she gained in academia including a love for ancient philosophical texts. Her experience in the tech industry became an editor’s best friend: “I really tried to share the knowledge in a way that all could understand,” she said. “The business world taught me a lot about getting down to earth in terms of thinking and thought process.”
She has consciously whittled an esoteric and complex topic (it is much bigger than the asanas learned at the local gym) to 200 pages, a manageable length even for a harried valley worker. The book is now available in hardcover and other electronic formats.
A native of Marmande in southwest France, where she grew up with her parents and two brothers who remain there, Boxberger-Oberoi immigrated to the United States as a college student. She’d already completed her baccalaureate in France, a rough equivalent of high school. She loved languages and literature and wanted to be an academic, teaching French and writing books. In the United States, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the College of Charleston and in 1993 a master’s degree at the University of South Carolina. She started a doctoral degree at the University of Texas in Austin. She won scholarships and teaching and research assistantships for all of her studies.
“Then I realized that there was another life outside of academics,” she said. She moved to the Bay Area with her husband then got her first tech job in 1996, launching a career that carried her to Openwave Systems inc., Fox Interactive Media Inc. and the Amazon lab. She specialized in “internationalization and localization,” which, early on, meant “how to re-architect a product to use it globally with minimal changes to the source code when you want to use a different language,” she said. As she advanced, she focused more on expansion strategies.
But 13 years after leaving the academy to climb the corporate rungs, she questioned her identity and how she was spending her time. “I looked at my life, and I had everything every person wanted: a great career and financial rewards,” she said. “But I felt like I was a fish trying to swim against the current.”
A conversation with her father-in-law, Maj. Gen. R.R. Oberoi, set a new direction for her life. A yoga practitioner himself, the retired Army engineer and former chairman of Indian hydroelectric company Bhakra Beas Management Board, suggested: “Why don’t you come to India and reconnect with yourself?” So she did.
She wound up at the Siddhartha Yoga and Ayurveda Centre in the Dharamsala region of the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Though she did not expect to teach yoga when she returned, she completed 700 hours of study including Sanskrit and Ayurveda, the traditional Hindu medicine, and is certified and registered as a master meditation and yoga teacher by Yoga Alliance International and the Siddhartha center. She later climbed India’s Mount Kailash, a peak in the Himalayas and a Hindu, Jain and Buddhist holy site. A photograph of the view from the mountain at sunrise adorns the cover of her book.
A cluster of mostly ladies, young and old, sipped cocktails and cool drinks July 21 at San Mateo’s Roti Indian Bistro in anticipation of a Boxberger-Oberoi mini-lecture and book signing. It was the first-ever such event at his downtown restaurant, said Sunil “Sunny” Arora, the proprietor and a tech-industry veteran himself.
For him, the restaurant is more than a place to find physical sustenance, said Arora, the son of an Indian diplomat. He started serving North Indian cuisine nearly 15 years ago, first in downtown Burlingame and since 2013 in San Mateo. He believed he could deliver better quality food than what was available. Food is an integral part of Ayurveda medicine. “I see (the book signing) as something that we will continue to do to bring the best cultural information to our clients, so they can see how rich and deep the Indian culture is,” Arora said.
Born in Indonesia, Arora spent 20 years in the technology industry and says he was among the vanguard of the now-stereotypical Indian IT experts who have migrated en masse to the United States in the last 30 years. He lived in Washington, D.C., for four years as a child, returned to New Delhi for another seven years, then in 1983 migrated back to the United States to earn electrical engineering and graduate business degrees. His work history includes time as an Ernst & Young business-strategy consultant. He left tech and lots of professional travel to spend more time with his son, Neil, who now works at the restaurant too. “I thought Samya was a great success. She is brilliant and very impressive,” Arora said. Was the gathering good for business, too? “Absolutely,” he said.
Initially, her experiences in India—not only at the ashram and on the mountain but also over the two decades since 1995 that she has traveled the country annually—inspired a novel, which she started when she returned to San Mateo, Boxberger-Oberoi said. But while friends and acquaintances expressed interest in the novel’s stories, they also wanted to know what she had learned in her yoga studies. Her book is her response.
Recently, Cheryl Angeles, president and chief executive of the San Mateo Area Chamber of Commerce, encouraged her to begin teaching after seeing Boxberger-Oberoi lead a Toastmasters International meeting. Boxberger-Oberoi is offering twice-weekly “Yoga Sessions for Professionals” at the chamber offices. “The possibilities are endless once you learn to align your body, mind and spirit; to be deliberate in your actions; and to explore ways to improve your creativity, productivity and performance,” she promises attendees.
Angeles is a believer, citing Apple Inc.’s Steve Jobs as a tech leader who also embraced yoga. (It’s true, according to San Francisco-based Yoga Journal.) “The breathing lessons in particular are very helpful to me, and I am starting my mornings and ending my evenings by breathing and chanting. I feel much calmer,” said Angeles, who also attended the book signing.
Boxberger-Oberoi said she is still trying to grasp the next evolution in her life. She knows it involves bringing what she has learned to the tech industry, from outside a corporate structure or within one, “as part of an organization that valued this, in whatever position that would be,” she said. “I love to build new products and making something useful and helpful to the rest of the world.”
(Photos by Jesus Nava Jr.)