by Sonia Barkat
Fifteen people lie on their floors, breathing deeply, connected through screens on a weekday afternoon. Faint ambient music plays over Zoom, warped and distant through the mic, like sound underwater.
“Bring your awareness to the physical outline of your body, and become so soft that with every exhale, the edges become a little less defined,” says Goli Gabbay, in a Persian-Parisian accent that warms the space around it, “like the outline starts to dissolve into your breath.”
The students have spent an hour in the relaxation class when they lie down for the final segment, guided meditation, which follows yoga, and a conversation about mental wellbeing where Gabbay asks Purchase students how often they feel stressed. The most common answer, students say in the chat, is “every day.” When Gabbay asks what the cause of that stress is, the majority agree it is because of schoolwork.
In a follow-up conversation with Gabbay, she says that this is why she got into guided relaxation to start with.
“When I was in high school, I was in all honors and AP classes, and I had anxiety,” said Gabbay. “I remember having insomnia because my mind was so worried about all the things I had to do. So my mom took me to a teacher. Like many people, I have to continue these practices for my own well-being. You know, they say that teachers usually practice what they need most.”
When Gabbay started her practice professionally, she was doing body-based therapy with hospital patients, before working in psychological rehab centers for 15 years. Gabbay has been working in the field for over 22 years and combines yoga and mindfulness with nutrition and neuroscience. She leads programs for organizations and with athletes and has even worked with royalty.
After Gabbay became aware of the high statistics of depression and anxiety among college students, she decided to focus on collaborating with universities.
Gabbay says, “People are taught so many things in school, reading and writing and art and humanities, but no one is taught how to manage not feeling well in their mental health.”
For this Purchase event, Gabbay was booked by Julia Furlipa from the Office of Community Engagement to lead students through her program “From Stress to Serenity.” Furlipa says she was looking to hold a stress-relief program as part of Welcome Week.
Gabbay says she thinks the pandemic has made schools more interested in the subject because she’s had more bookings during the pandemic than when she was doing live programs.
Although Gabbay, who is currently working from Los Angeles, says she prefers conducting classes face-to-face, she doesn’t feel limited by working virtually. She asks students questions, points out similarities between their responses, and gets a few people to join in the little arm dance she does, invoking the image of malleability, when describing neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to change habits and frame of mind by changing its neural pathways—and creates an energy of a community.
Gabbay says the way she handles virtual programs is simply by pretending she’s in person. As students joined the Zoom call, Gabbay took note of their IDs and greeted them by name, complimenting someone’s virtual background—a picture of MLK Jr. for Black History Month—and addressing a student in excitement when she asks for them to turn their camera on, “Oh yes, I want to see those curls!”
Gabbay explains that utilizing the body is an important aspect of handling stress and that talking things out can only help people deal with so much. “We cannot address mental health and wellbeing without integrating our physical body,” she says. “Because from the time that we’re born, literally up to this very moment sitting here together, all of our life experience is through our body.”
Furlipa, who took part in the program, says “Although I am not a student, I do feel extremely stressed with work and other life happenings, so it was good to finally get a moment to focus on my body and relaxing. I knew a lot of the yoga movements that were referred to, but I was still learning how to connect breath to movement, due to stress and anxiety.”
According to Gabbay, breathing is one of the most important things you can do, even if it’s just 10 deep breaths a day to begin cultivating an experience of self and quiet the mind. She tells the class that in a time where we’re constantly on devices, we have to deliberately make space for ourselves. And a great place to start, Gabbay suggests, is to limit screen time.
“We’re all really addicted to our devices,” she says. “We think they keep us connected to each other and to the outside world, and they do to some degree, but the real goal is creating a rich connection with ourselves, then bringing that connection to our relationships and the outside world.”
In life there will always be external shifts that are out of our control, Gabbay says. “The thing I want to teach you is that we absolutely do have control over our inner landscape. Even in the peak of a global pandemic.” She says the calm that students feel after the guided relaxation is their natural state—not the anxiety, not the stress.
When at last, the class shifts themselves off the floor, they are met with Gabbay’s screen, where the instructor sits on a mat in a sunny room, in front of a blue, abstract painting. Some say in the chat that they feel much better than before, as if they can move freely both physically and mentally. When all the students have opened their eyes, Gabbay smiles in delight. “I can feel your relaxation all the way from Los Angeles!”