Tekla Kostek: Prima Ballerina to Urban Garden Yogi


“Come do it again,” Tekla Kostek would beckon to the teenage girls at our ballet academy in Los Angeles as they stood with one hand on the hips of their leotards, their other hand self-consciously brushing back the wisps of hair escaping their buns.

“You have to understand,” I remember she once told us, “You do the moves that look ugly. I don’t want to see the steps that you’ve already mastered.”

I had finally made it to the highest level offered at that academy – the coveted Level 7. Then, I stopped improving. The headmistress guided us through the same exercises every day. She gave some corrections, especially to the girls who showed the most promise, but we had ample time to stare in the mirror and pinch the skin around our waists. Then a new teacher came to town.

Tekla Kostek, who trained at the National Ballet School in Canada. At age 25, she had just come from working five years in the corps at Boston Ballet.

I would watch Tekla Kostek before class, drinking a coffee and taking her cigarette break – her lean, elegant body – the ideal classical body I did not have. But when Tekla, whom I came to know affectionately as “TK,” saw my keenness to train, she took me under her wing for prima ballerina bootcamp, giving me the attention and coaching I craved. In TK’s classes I did not have time to scrutinize myself in the mirror – instead, I came out of TK’s classes having changed the hue of my leotard with the soak of sweat, contemplating new theories about a leg extension, or how to hold my arms in a way, as she would explain, from a trapezius muscle extension.

Now, 10 years later. I am the age that TK was when she was my teacher. I recently moved back to Los Angeles, and I hoped to re-connect with my former teacher. Little did I know she had become a yogi.

Not a “yogi” in the pretentious sense; a sharing, open and practicing yogi who would make me oatmeal and tea in her home and tell me about her recent three-month journey in India.

On a sunny Friday afternoon at her home in Echo Park, TK brews me a cup of chai. The house she lives in was built in 1907, and has a contemplative artist’s vibe, as we sit at a round wooden table and she reflects on the time she knew me.

“You teach what you know, which for me was the old-school style. My approach was, “˜I’m going to give you something totally impossible.'” She says that in many ballet classes teaching people steps as if it is an impossible challenge of beauty that they will never get right is “inscribing negativity.”

And then I start to learn more about her perspective as a ballet teacher. After she taught me ballet, TK went on to teach ballet at Loyola Marymount University and became a principal dancer of Los Angeles Ballet. In her time teaching, she has realized that in ballet classes, we “compartmentalize the body” by focusing on technical aspects of that wrapped posé or extension of the leg and these are thoughts that feed the mind. Rather, a ballet teacher should do drills to simply creating patterns in the body through repetition – so the dancer doesn’t even have time to think.

She moved back to Boston for 2006, where she taught ballet at the University of Massachusetts. There, she had her students shout “I am Great” affirmations in class.

“You come to really interesting results,” she says, “when you get rid of “˜you’re not good enough.’  This is because your way of thinking about yourself becomes your reality. In dance, by thinking we are not good enough, we are ingraining into our muscle memory this idea of lack.”

Upon returning to Los Angeles, TK began teaching ballet again at Loyola. In 2008, she went to France on a music tour with her husband, Antoine Salem, who is a musician. “We smoked and drank our way through France, but when I came back and returned to yoga class, I realized I couldn’t be a hypocrite; it’s all about the breath. I quit smoking.”

TK went through a yoga teacher-training course at Exhale in Los Angeles and in November 29, 2009, left for India to seek her teacher’s guru, Paramahamsa Nithyanada.

She observes, looking back, she was “always really interested in meditation. How do you recreate that bliss experience that artists operate out of?”

What she experienced in India she had always understood at an intellectual level, but finally had the opportunity to live it at Nithyanada’s Life Bliss Engineering program at Bengaluru, India. Just the name of this program would have made me roll my eyes and giggle a bit, if it had not been TK telling me about it with a serious glow.

She recounts a sample day for me:

  • 5am wake up
  • 5:45am breakfast (South Indian satvik food)
  • 5:45 – 8:30 asana practice (vinyasa kria)
  • Afternoon of Puja (lecture/workshop)

She says that sometimes they would meditate through the whole night, because the meditation was so invigorating.

After a month in India, she appealed to her friends for help to stay on and complete the three-month program. She was surprised by an outpouring of generosity and raised a total of $2,000 from her friends along with encouragements; they told her that she was doing what they had always wanted to do. At the end of the program, her husband, Antoine, came to travel with her for two weeks in India.

Sitting across from TK as we chat about her journeys, we look out over a front garden that will soon sprout rows of corn and other vegetables. Since her return from India, she has “taken the pace down,” for moments like these with friends, “moments of sharing.”

“I want to be more aware of how I contribute,” she says. She does this by having quieter, more homebody days.

Her main livelihood continues to be ballet; in two weeks she will start rehearsal for Los Angeles Ballet. This past month she has been staying in, eating rice, beans and oatmeal. Her current project, Oatmeal28, will be a raid around town to use the vegetables from her urban garden to provide a healthy vegetarian fast food option to the late night music and art scene in Los Angeles. She also plans to write a book with her husband about artists teaching methods, inspired by Kenny Werner.

Her main disciplines now are writing and meditation, which she combines for her blog, Marriage Morals and the Urban Guru.

An afternoon conversation has taken us late into the evening. I’m no longer so concerned about being a beautiful ballerina, but rather, interested in being able to live my life according to deeper ideals. Many young adults have become jaded or cynical, at odds with what post-college life has yielded them. I look to my former teacher, my friend, TK, and now I marvel at her own growth.

As she sits back in the flowy kulats she brought back from India, and we share our experiences, I find that once more, TK has inspired and pushed me to keep dancing – from the inside out.