Stepping on the mat
In yoga, Claudia Baeza found a relief from her depression that medication and therapists had never been able to offer.
Listen to Claudia’s Story
When Claudia Baeza was an infant in her native Santiago, Chile, her grandmother tripped and fell on the cement while carrying her newest granddaughter in her arms. Baeza’s tiny head took the brunt of the fall’s force and she was knocked unconscious, suffering a traumatic brain injury. Not yet two years old, she was put on the powerful anticonvulsant, Dilantin, and would remain on the medication until well into her teenage years.
Dilantin slows down brain activity in order to reduce potential seizures. But it can also dull cognitive abilities and cause drowsiness, a lack of coordination and slurred speech. So from her earliest consciousness, Baeza says she felt “very dull and kind of off” and was perceived by others as “slow, dumb and incapable.”
“I knew from those earliest years that something was wrong,” says Baeza, now in her mid-50s and living in Sarasota, Florida. “I was in my head a lot. I was having conversations in my mind and watching my life happen in front me, not having any control over it at all. I was always sad and my self-image was very, very poor.”
In the early ‘70s, when she was 6 or 7 years old, her parents immigrated to the United States so her father could pursue a medical career. Neither she nor her more outgoing older sister spoke a word of English. At school, where she was taunted and made fun of for speaking Spanish and her difficulty learning to read, she tried to slip into the background to draw attention away from herself, becoming introverted, reclusive and isolated. She cannot name one friend from that period, nor anyone who was there for her in a meaningful way.
This isolation was reinforced at home, where her father’s violent temper regularly erupted into physical, mental and verbal abuse. Baeza, constantly fearful and anxious, would run and hide, withdraw and make herself as invisible as possible. Her sister, who was more confrontational, took the worst of his wrath, but their shared pain did not draw them closer. Her sister often replayed their father’s example of violence on her sibling.
As Baeza made her way through school, there was but one bright spot in her days – gymnastics practice. She began training and competing not long after coming to the United States and it lifted her spirits for two reasons: One, she had the talent, promise and petite body for it and it made her feel like she was good at something. And two, it got her out of the house, where she could let down her guard.
Baeza tried her best to do well academically too and when doctors finally took her off the Dilantin in her early teens, she felt “a little more capable of being myself and having my own energy.” She subsequently never once had a seizure, leading her to wonder ever after if the medication could have been discontinued much earlier and what that might have meant for her mental health.
“I think it did a huge damage to me because many people on this medication are misperceived as dumb or not bright and that’s how I was perceived for more than a decade of my life,” she says. “I wonder all the time how that baked itself into my situation and what the consequences were to my mental health and my developing a lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety.”
Around the age of 14, puberty hit and Baeza quickly gained about 15 pounds, quashing her self confidence, as well as her budding gymnastic career.
“I felt heavy everywhere, heavy in my body and my mind and unable to get out of a state of self-loathing,” she says. “I would say that’s a good word for how I felt as a teen.”
Her parents “noticed from a medical perspective that I was going down, down, down” and sent her to a psychiatrist, who immediately offered anti-depressant medication. Instead of seeing this as a potential solution, Baeza saw it as further confirmation of her failure. That was the first time she remembers entertaining thoughts of suicide. Though she did not act on them, she continued to feel unsettled, sad and distant, and “completely alone.”
The antidepressants she was prescribed helped — “until they didn’t.” When she complained to her doctor that the benefits were waning, he added another prescription, and soon, another. The piling on of prescription after prescription become “my trajectory for the next decade,” Baeza says.
“’You have this symptom? Let’s give you another medication to help with that? You have this side effect? Here’s another to counteract that,’” she recalls of the doctor’s response. “I was chasing my tail with all these medications, but never truly resolving the deepest issue, which was my belief that I did not deserve a better life. I believed this was my lot in life, just to suffer.”
She followed her sister to Boston College, hoping the proximity might bolster their relationship, but it ended up being only a change in geography. Her sister wanted “nothing to do with me” and Baeza remained disconnected, living in a single dorm room, focusing on getting through her classes and not partaking “at all of the full college experience.”
Then she fell in love, with a brainy young man from Germany attending MIT. At least she thought it was love, though in hindsight, she now recognizes he was simply “a crutch to save me from this deep level of unhappiness I’d had for most of my life.”
“Being in a relationship with someone who paid attention to me and being with someone who gave me a temporary reprieve from the mental health suffering and the abuse of my father was euphoric,” she recalls. “I felt like it was true love, but I didn’t fully understand what love was. I latched on to him as some sort of assistance. He was saving me and now I felt I could have a family, normalcy, all kind of things I’d never dreamed of having.”
After they married, Baeza continued to have bouts of severe depression. Her husband was initially very supportive, but as the years went by he grew – understandably, she adds –less patient.
“He would urge me to stop thinking about it, ruminating about it, he thought I was creating my own mental problems,” she says. “And in many ways, he was right. I kept sticking the same old spoon in the same old soup.”
She graduated without any sense of what to do with her life and decided, once again, to follow in her sister’s footsteps and apply to law school. When she was accepted, she thought she’d found the path to finally becoming “a better person.”
“The overall feeling was, if I just better myself, get more education, lose more weight, get a job, I’ll be better. Never feeling whole or like I was good enough.”
After becoming pregnant with their first son, Nick, she went off her anti-depressant medications and was thrilled to find she experienced happiness, stability and a balance she’d rarely known. But while still breastfeeding Nick, she became pregnant with her second son, Julian; within 14 months she had a nursing infant and another on the way.
Julian was born a week after her law school graduation – about the same time her husband decided that if his wife, with a Phd in law, was going to stay home raising kids, he needed to pursue an advanced degree himself. He accepted an offer to enter a Phd program at MIT, quit his job and “was consumed and unavailable for the next five years of his life,” Baeza said. Left alone at home with the children and feeling the financial strain of living on their savings, she slid back into a deep depression. The marriage ended in divorce after 10 years, when the boys were 6 and 7.
For years Baeza struggled as a single mother trying, without much success, to get her law career in gear in order to become financially independent. The cognitive behavioral therapy she received ultimately had little effect(“You just converse about the same old stuff, but nothing is ever resolved”), nor did the parade of medication she was continually prescribed. At one point she was on 10 simultaneously, which did little more than make her feel like “a giant petri dish of pharmaceuticals.”
In 2010, with her boys were in their early high school years and Baeza was still struggling to ignite her career, she offered to do pro bono work for a legal aid social services agency in order to gain more experience and credibility. But her mental state was so poor that she missed an appointment with a client and was “fired” from the volunteer position. She attempted suicide by swallowing all of the prescriptions she had in her possession at once; a call to her therapist was all that saved her.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she recalls. “I’m not even good enough to donate my time. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was just done.”
What followed was several months in three different hospital psychiatric wards. At the first, doctors refused her insistence upon receiving shock treatment. At the second, she was given a medication that induced fibromyalgia, a nerve condition so painful she couldn’t even bear the feeling of water on her skin during a shower. Finally, she was transferred to the renowned McLean Hospital in Massachusetts, a teaching hospital of Harvard University where, after threatening suicide, doctors finally agreed to a series of ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) sessions. She was released a month later, with no evident benefit.
She spent a year – “the worst year of my life” — at her parent’s home in Chile trying to recover enough to be reunited with her children. When she returned to the U.S., she also returned to the yoga classes she’d taken sporadically in the past, prompted initially by “superficial goals” of losing weight, looking better and “being a yogi, because yogis are cool.” This time, it was different.
“I had built so many walls and they were so hardened that even I couldn’t see the scars and digest that narrative I had told myself my entire life, that I wasn’t worthy and that it would never change,” she says. “But I started discovering the tools of yoga were a way of unraveling the past. And that it could be offered in a trauma sensitive and informed way that would not re-trigger me to relive those experiences. So I made the decision that this would be my life’s work.”
She began to study the practice in earnest, eventually completing 500 hours of training from the respected Kripalu Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts to become a certified instructor. What she found was not only compassion and healing, but something that she had been missing her entire life: Community.
“Because mental health challenges are a very silent suffering, you’d never know of them just looking at someone,” she says. “But in a setting like yoga, you continually see the same people and you are invited to arrive just as you are – broken or not, grabbing the pieces or not, just showing up. Being on your mat just the way you are was permission I had never given myself before. And to be in that vulnerable state with a community that didn’t judge me or want anything from me was just the tiny glimpse of hope I needed.”
Though she remains on a very small dose of pharmaceutical medication (“I’m not a person that can eliminate all of it because of the damage that’s been done to my neurotransmitters”), after five years she was “shocked” to realize that her yoga practice was doing what all the previous interventions had never accomplished. Seeing the “immense opportunities for yoga to be an integrative approach” to mental well being, she has since deepened her training to include therapeutic yoga practices for traumatized populations.
In 2016 Baeza came to Florida for a yoga training and took a side trip to the Gulf coast of the state. She proposed to her boyfriend that they settle in Sarasota and, serendipitously, a beautiful commercial space suitable for a yoga studio became available on Pineapple Avenue downtown. Her studio – Pineapple Yoga (now Pineapple Yoga & Cycling, with the addition of cycling classes) — opened shortly thereafter.
But a commercial studio only fulfilled part of Baeza’s intentions. Recognizing that yoga classes can be out of reach financially for some populations, she also created the Dharma Footprint Project, a nonprofit founded to provide free, trauma-informed yoga classes for incarcerated youth and people dealing with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, addiction and other mental health challenges.
“It has always been my mission to serve those who are underserved and at risk in the community, because I was one of those people,” she says. “I see myself in every person who comes into the studio. I know if I had had these tools earlier in my life, I could have spared myself and my children a lot of suffering. So that is my goal with these programs.”
The Covid-19 pandemic forced her to close her business for more than two months, threatening her financial stability and injecting a new layer of stress. Once upon a time, that might have undone her; today, she turns to the self-care and self-healing habits that are a part of her yoga practice which return her to a place of purpose and self worth.
“I have struggled with my mental health as long as I’ve had consciousness of myself, but it is just one part of me, it doesn’t define who I am,” Baeza says. “I didn’t know that before. But when you show up in a yoga studio, you learn about other aspects of yourself and you see what you’ve been holding in your body.
“If there is trauma, the trauma lands in the body somewhere. The lived experience is felt in the body. So yoga helps us mediate it and digest it in a healthy, safe way, surrounded by people who are compassionate. It becomes a lifetstyle of self acceptance, self care and self love and it’s something you can do until your last breath. That’s the beauty of yoga. It grows with you.”