With little legs and a big heart, Kristen DeAndrade is living proof that perseverance prevails. Born with achondroplasia, the most common form of dwarfism, she is a passionista on a mission to erase barriers and eradicate stereotypes. Believing that disability is only a state of mind, Kristen shares her journey of living in the face of adversity with anyone who needs reminding of their own indomitable will. After recently coming face to face with paralysis and frightening uncertainty, she continues to be an advocate for her passionate causes, supporting her fellow patients at The Paley Institute. Currently residing in West Palm Beach, FL, she is a beloved kids yoga teacher and forever student who is far from the mainstream individuation of a practitioner seen on social media or in a magazine, her optimism and strength of heart are unparalleled. Kristen has appeared on several national television programs and networks including The Learning Channel and CBS Sunday Morning News. In addition to being a contributor for The Mighty, she has also been featured on Refinery29, Women’s Health, Huffington Post and Mind Body Green. Being authentic and open about life’s hard little intricacies is Kristen’s call to arms for those around her who are also stared down by hardship.
What do I do best?
Love is the fluidity and core of who I am and what I do best is sharing that with others. Whether it is through writing, motivational speaking, my yoga practice or a genuine face to face conversation, authenticity is the key to connection.
When you experience your illness or condition as a disability, you find yourself locked in a prison. When you experience your illness or condition as an identity, it is a source of freedom. As soon as I identified myself as a woman with dwarfism, BOOM! The beauty of life revealed itself. What I never allow is my condition or a situation to define who I am. Knowing that love lies in the depth of our hearts and not in the length of our legs, or our race, gender, etc. challenges assumptions and reminds us all that we have more in common than we realize.
When I was in the third grade, I began sharing my story with others; what it was like living in the face of adversity. We are all fighting our own battles and yet, we rarely talk about the nitty, gritty for fear of judgement. Connecting with others through the scary, dark times and when the light brilliantly shines through has become something that truly fills my love tank. Being open about my life’s challenges and living with a different-ability also provides proof for others against society’s unnecessary and impossible idea of perfection.
What makes me the best version of myself?
Resilience; always finding a way to rise.
Here’s the thing, easy doesn’t last. Pain, physical or emotional, is a path and it has to be traveled. The more we resist, the harder life becomes. At a young age, I learned to feel pain. Initially it would stand knocking on my door, and I refused to let it in. Until I realized that opening that door was the only way out. Pain came in, stayed awhile and then left. In a way, every painful experience left me feeling inspired to continue taking care of myself and brave enough to keep going, keep showing up, and keep rising to meet each and every challenge.
It started with bullying when I was a child. Words and actions stung and made my heart hurt. People would push me down, tell me, “No, you can’t. You’re too little.” Strangers in public would point and stare; often times calling me a midget and laughing. Those were my biggest teaching moments; I picked myself back up, adapted and pushed forward. To this day, resilience is something that I continue to cultivate every single day. As Glennon Doyle says, “First the pain. Then the rising.”
What are my aspirations?
Personally, right now, my biggest goal is to heal. Over the past two years, specifically, I was dealt a tough hand. On the brink of paralysis, caused by spinal stenosis (compression of the spinal cord) which is characteristic to the form of dwarfism I am living with, I nearly lost my ability to walk. Six surgeries and numerous setbacks later, my little soul suit is still standing with a long way to go. Hopefully by the spring I will be walking unassisted in time to tear-up the dance floor at a dear friend’s wedding.
From a business standpoint, I would love to publish my memoir. As a child I kept several diaries, one specifically recounting the limb lengthening surgeries I underwent beginning at the age of twelve. Being able to embrace my own story, I’ve always felt this burning need, without expectation, to share it with the world. Knowing that yoga heals, I want to continue sharing the practice with others and making it accessible for everyBODY; both children and adults.
In dedicating all of my time to healing and being laid up over the past few years, I’m more than ready to quench my thirst for wanderlust and jump on a plane to anywhere. If travel opportunities also involve speaking engagements, even better. More than anything, I want the rest of my life to be so much more than the typical trajectory: wake up, go to work, pay the bills, come home, and go to sleep. I know that I am capable of creating a life around doing what I love.
My Biggest Success?
My biggest success is simple yet profound: standing strong on my own two feet and continuing to move forward one baby step at a time.
My Most Challenging Moment?
My most challenging moment to date was coming face to face with paralysis. Over the course of a year, my spinal cord became so severely compressed that I began losing function in my legs and my pain reached levels that I cannot find words to describe.
After a misdiagnosis, months of the excruciating pain and lack of mobility, a friend told me about Dr. David Feldman, a spine specialist who relocated to West Palm Beach, FL from NYC to practice alongside my orthopedic specialist Dr. Dror Paley. My parents and I traveled to The Paley Institute to consult with Dr. Feldman about my condition. Upon reviewing my MRI, it was evident that I had severe stenosis in my lumbar spine. I was told to go home to Charleston, pack my bags, prepare for a tough road ahead and if I lost complete feeling in my legs before returning to Florida I needed to go to the ER immediately and call Dr. Feldman.
Fast forward a year later, I have undergone three major spine surgeries, involving a 10 level spinal fusion, three surgeries on my legs and hours upon hours of rehabilitation. Due to issues with health insurance [don’t even get me started] I was forced to uproot and relocate to West Palm Beach, FL.
We speak so often to the fragility of life and yet true meaning isn’t always fulfilled until something happens. Hearing Dr. Feldman describe how severe my spinal injury was, losing motor function on the operating table; his words were a blow to my heart that I never expected. Experiencing partial paralysis on my right side after my first fusion and fighting to stay on my own two feet has given me a large dose of perspective doused in gratitude. Florida is now home and everything that has fallen into place since moving here is exactly what I was missing in my life. Some of my wildest dreams are beginning to come to fruition and I couldn’t ask for a more brilliant light to shine through my darkest time.
“Little legs, big heart. It doesn’t matter how long your legs are, you can only take one step at a time.”
My Favorite People/Role Models?
There are an inconceivable number of people who have played a role in my journey. It is said that souls stay present in your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. For me, it all begins with my parents. They have done nothing but fight for and believe in me since day one. Their encouragement over the years and willingness to reignite the fire under my ass when shit got real has led me to become the woman I am today.
My not-so-little, younger brother, Derek, for his consistent comic relief, sarcastic, witty remarks and never ending support. He has done everything that he has put his mind to; including attending graduate school at MIT. He’s doing big things and I am a proud sister.
Dr. David Feldman and all of the staff at The Paley Institute in West Palm Beach, FL. To say that I would not be standing here today if it wasn’t for a most talented, compassionate surgeon and his team is a complete understatement. Even when things got really dark and scary over the last couple of years, they never gave up on me. With hugs over handshakes, we got this.
Katherine Wilder, whose involvement in my healing process has gone far beyond her magic hands that have helped build me back up as I was crumbling. A sol sister and mentor, she challenged me to shatter my outer shell, embrace all of what I have to offer this beautiful world we live in and step back onto my yoga mat, internal scaffolding and all. We met when I was relearning to walk after three major spine surgeries. My heart was heavy and that time in my life was dark and clouded. Reaching out to her and asking for help was one of the most difficult and best decisions I have ever made. Katherine’s light reignited mine and her brilliance is reflected in every step I take. She is a remarkable yoga teacher with a gorgeous practice of her own. So much love and gratitude for you, WildKat.
Glennon Doyle is my favorite author and speaker. She describes life as being both brutal and beautiful and it is so true. So, here’s to a BRUTIFUL life. It’s the best there is.
Kids are a complete breath of fresh air. Having worked with kids for most of my life, they are some of my biggest teachers. They are raw, unfiltered and brutally honest. Kids live without reservation and love so, so hard. Seeing this world through the eyes of some of my favorite littles is a refreshing way to gain clarity.
Yoga has played a HUGE role in my life since college and I am grateful to have had some amazing teachers who continue to inspire my practice; Taylor Harkness, Kathryn Budig, Alexandria Crow, Annie Carpenter, Holly Weston, Sarah Frick and Beth Plante.
My Favorite Places/Destinations?
Maine will always have a special place in my heart. The welcome sign after crossing the Piscatiqua River doesn’t lie; MAINE: The way life should be. There is nothing that beats a summer in Maine.
The Holy City, Charleston, South Carolina. As the city of my alma mater, it is where I learned to spread my wings as a fiercely independent woman. For 12 years I called Charleston home, made some of the greatest friends and memories and learned. Not to mention the beaches, history and out-of-this-world food scene.
Uganda, Africa; The Homeland. Words cannot describe how beautiful of a place it truly is. Twice I have been there with One World Health; an organization based in Charleston that strives to provide quality, affordable healthcare to people in need. Over the course of five days we provided free medical services to over 1,000 men, women and children in rural villages of Uganda. Each trip ended with a safari; sitting on top of our van, under the stars. Dearest Africa, I will return, I promise.
In 2015, I had the privilege of attending a ‘Shine On’ yoga retreat led by my dear friend Taylor Harkness, in the jungle of Costa Rica and it was magic; we explored San Jose, visited La Catarata (a giant waterfall), connected with the people, ate delicious food, and explored hot springs. There is something about being in the jungle, by the ocean, completely disconnected from the rest of the world. I can’t wait to go back.
In the future, I would love my travels to take me to Europe, Australia and New Zealand, Portugal and Thailand. There is so much to see in this great, big, beautiful world.
My Favorite Products/Objects?
My car or any vehicle for that matter. I love to drive with the windows down and volume up. Road trips are my favorite, especially with someone in shotgun and I seem to do my best thinking and problem solving when driving. La Croix; it’s become a real problem how much I love it, also fair to say that it might be an addiction. My Liforme yoga mat and my passport.
My Current Passions?
Yoga is a healing, loving practice that happens both on and off the mat for me. A practice in which I intend to love myself, honor my body, and recognize my breath without comparison. Everything from the time I wake up until I go to sleep is my yoga. There is a lot of beauty that comes from knowing my strengths and dropping the urge to push myself over the edge. Physically, my asana has taught me to respect my boundaries and honor my body — whatever that looks like. Modifications and props are a must and I love discovering new ways to utilize them on the mat.
Explosive, nearly-peeing-your-pants, I-can-barely-breathe laughter is my absolute favorite. Laughter is contagious, and so is confidence. When I laugh with people, there are no boundaries; each of us being unapologetically ourselves, our inhibitions having disappeared. That screams confidence. Instilling confidence and lots of laughter is a requirement in life.
Hearing other people’s stories. Again, connection through authenticity makes my heart beat.
Vitamin Sea. You will never find me far from Mother Ocean.
Some people call it cooking, others refer to it as creation and experimentation in the kitchen, ask my mom and she’ll tell you that I make a ginormous mess. Personally I think I do a little of it all and find cooking for others a brilliant way to give love.
Last but not least: glitter. You can’t be sad when you wear or have glitter in your possession, you just can’t.