Pilates proves font of power for Camas woman

Cerebral palsy doesn't stop Laura Kotsovos from teaching

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter

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Ariane Kunze/The Columbian Jessica Schultz receives Pilates instruction from Laura Kotsovos of Camas at the Jessica Schultz Pilates studio in Portland. Kotsovos' Pilates certification requires 600 hours of teaching and observation, as well as several written and technique tests.

Laura Kotsovos, 39, is training to be a Pilates instructor, despite having cerebral palsy that affects the right side of her body. She hopes to inspire other women with physical disabilities to try activities such as Pilates and yoga.

Photos by Ariane Kunze/The Columbian Laura Kotsovos of Camas, left, practices teaching Pilates to her instructor, Jessica Schultz, during a lesson Tuesday at Jessica Schultz Pilates in Portland. Kotsovos, 39, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as an infant and is now training to be a Pilates instructor.

Most of Laura Kotsovos’ life, she’s been told she can’t do things.

She loved ballet as a child but was told she would never be a professional dancer. She was steered away from basketball, softball and every other physical activity she enjoyed. People told Kotsovos her cerebral palsy diagnosis as an infant meant she’d never excel in sports.

For a long time, Kotsovos believed it. That changed when she found Pilates.

“For so long in my life I’ve felt so limited by my body,” Kotsovos said. “It’s not true. I don’t have to believe in those limitations.”

Because of that, the 39-year-old Camas woman decided to leave her career in traditional health care and pursue a career as a Pilates instructor.

“The last thing anyone thought I would do for a living,” she said with a smile.

Early challenge

Kotsovos was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was 9 months old.

Cerebral palsy refers to a group of neurological disorders that permanently affect body movement and muscle coordination, according to the National Institutes of Health. Cerebral palsy is caused by damage to, or abnormalities inside, the developing brain that disrupt the brain’s ability to control movement and maintain posture and balance, according to the institute.

The symptoms of cerebral palsy vary from person to person, depending on which parts of the brain have been injured. All people with cerebral palsy have problems with movement and posture. In addition, some may also have intellectual disabilities, seizures, abnormal physical sensations or perceptions, impaired vision or hearing, and language and speech problems, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Kotsovos has hemiplegic cerebral palsy, which affects one side of the body. In Kotsovos’ case, her right side is weaker than her left side. The disorder affects Kotsovos physically but not mentally.

There is no cure for cerebral palsy but supportive treatments, medications and surgery can help to improve motor and communication skills, according to the National Institutes of Health. When Kotsovos was 5 years old, she underwent surgery on her right heel cord. Children with hemiplegia generally walk on tip-toe because of tight heel tendons, according to the National Institutes of Health.

With Pilates, Kotsovos has improved her coordination, flexibility, strength and sense of body movement.

“The basis of Pilates is, anyone can do it,” Kotsovos said.

Pilates is a method of exercise that consists of low-impact flexibility, muscular strength and endurance movements. Pilates is similar to calisthenics and emphasizes the use of the abdominal muscles, lower back, hips and thighs.

The moves can be modified to meet the needs of people of all ages and physical abilities, Kotsovos said.

For Kotsovos, strength has always been an issue. So she modifies exercises that require weights. When others might use a medium weight, she uses lighter weights.

Kotsovos sees her limitations as a way to understand and relate to others with varying levels of ability.

“I think it makes me more aware and compassionate with other people’s bodies,” she said.

Personal touch

Kotsovos has worked in the health care field since 2007 as a patient advocate. She also handles referrals and coordinates care for patients. But about two years ago, Kotsovos decided it was time for a change.

“I just got so burned out and frustrated with what I’m seeing in traditional health care,” Kotsovos said. “It’s quantity over quality. It’s so impersonal.”

Kotsovos wanted to do something more personal. She wanted to work one-on-one with people, particularly people with disabilities.

As Kotsovos debated her options, she realized the impact Pilates was having on her life; she started taking classes about a year and a half earlier.

“For me, it felt so therapeutic, physically and emotionally,” Kotsovos said. “I had a strong mind-body connection I never had before. I wanted to help others find it.”

Kotsovos is about six months into her instructor certification and has another year to go. She is currently certified to teach intermediate Pilates and is working toward her advanced-level certification.

The training requires 600 hours of teaching and observation, as well as several written teaching and technique exams. She’s completing her training at Jessica Schultz Pilates in Portland, but hopes to also teach in Southwest Washington once she finishes her training.

She hopes to eventually work full time as a Pilates instructor.

“I love the ability to see people grow, both emotionally and physically,” Kotsovos said.

She’s also enjoying proving her doubters wrong.

“It’s been amazing,” Kotsovos said.