I’ve often wondered what makes a great teacher.
Whether the subject is philosophy or fencing, yachting or yoga, the core traits of a great teacher do not change. Let me tell you about a woman who embodied these traits—and how powerfully she impacted my life.
I recently learned that a teacher and mentor of mine had died. It was a great loss to me and to everyone who never got to experience her wisdom. However, at the same time, her passing was a punctuation mark on her most powerful lessons to me:
>> I have learned what I need in order to pursue my best self and live the most meaningful life possible.
>> I already have everything within me.
>> A teacher’s true task is to prepare us to go on without them.
I met Anne on a beautiful November day in Bali. I was going through a rough time and a friend recommended I set up a private session with her. I had no idea what to expect. Upon my arrival, I saw a stunning older woman with bright red hair sporting white Crocs and big dangly earrings come out to greet me. I knew I was in for an adventure.
We sat in a small room and she asked me, “Why have you come to seek my help?” But as I started reconstructing every detail of my story, she stopped me. She only wanted to know enough to be able to help me reframe what I thought I knew so that I could move past it—actually, so that I could live without it.
At the end of our first session together, I asked how often I should come back while I was on the island. She responded, “You should only come back if you feel you need it. My goal is for you not to need me anymore.”
I walked away a bit confused, but with a sense of anticipation—and an expectation that something life-changing was about to happen. As I thought more about what she said, I was reminded of something another teacher of mine had said: “A good yoga teacher hopes to put himself or herself out of business.”
I’ve come to believe that this is perhaps the most crucial trait to look for in any teacher—that their primary goal is to empower us to be our best selves without them. I didn’t realize that at the time though. I only knew that I felt more hopeful than I had in a long time, and I was eager to dive back in. So, of course, I went back as soon as I could.
During our next session, I told Anne how hard I sometimes found it to be a teacher—to be someone who people relied on to set an example. I said, “You know, sometimes I wish I could take a break from being a role model and just be the real me.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she said. I was a bit taken aback, but I’d learned to trust her enough to wait it out. True to form, she had a series of questions prepared for me.
“When you’re teaching, do you feel connected to a wisdom greater than your own?”
“Well, absolutely. Sometimes inspiration just flows through me and something magical happens.” I replied.
“And, when you feel that connection, do you feel good, like you have all the energy in the world?”
“Yeah, actually, I do. I generally feel more energetic just after I teach.” I thought for a moment about what she might be getting at.
“That is the real you. Not this other person who wants to hide so she can take a break from being her best self, from being available to people, from the scrutiny of leadership. The real you is your most connected, your most energetic self. That’s who I want you to be all the time. Are you ready for that?”
Despite the fact that it sounded daunting, I realized that was exactly who I wanted to be. I recognized that she’d uncovered the true source of my anxiety: I’d been walking this fine line between being a teacher and a private person for my entire career as a yoga teacher—the anxiety I felt came from not having fully integrated those parts of myself.
So, Anne took me through a visualization to explore my most fully expressed self, and then I could see it. And afterward, translating that into my daily life was almost effortless. Now I wake up and know exactly who I am: someone who is always connected to divine wisdom.
In that session, Anne had embodied another key trait of a truly great teacher: recognizing that true transformation and ultimate growth in any discipline or area of life cannot be achieved without addressing the whole person.
I saw Anne several more times. At our last session—although I didn’t know then that it was our last time—Anne remarked, “You learn fast.”
I responded, “Well, Anne, I don’t have any time to waste.”
“I’m glad you understand that,” she said.
That entire session was a lesson within a lesson. She taught me how insignificant my story is in determining who I am and the path I take. She taught me that my story can be of use to others if telling it empowers them to embrace their true selves more fully. But if we are not sharing it for the benefit of others, we should not be tied to or focused on those stories. We often let them hold us hostage as we walk into the future, making it impossible to do anything other than repeat the steps we took in the past.
She removed the blindfold and invited me to walk with my eyes open; only then could I finally see what was before me: endless potential.
But it went deeper than that. In order to teach me this lesson, she had to have already learned it herself. Kierkegaard put it like this: “All true help begins with a humbling.” Meaning, we must be able to let go of our own histories, our own perceived limitations, old wounds, and all that comes with being tethered to our stories in order to become our best selves—and part of being our best selves is being of service to others.
And for a teacher who aims to lead her students to enlightenment, the third defining trait is this: the ability to go outside oneself and truly understand another human.
Kierkegaard also said: “If one is truly to succeed in leading a person to a specific place, one must first and foremost take care to find him where he is and begin there.” We have to let go of our own egos in order to truly enlighten others. Anne had done this for me, and she showed me the truth of it simply by being the teacher she was.
Before I left that session, she asked me if I thought I would ever need to see her again.
I thought for a moment and after a deep breath replied, “No.” I felt confident in my assertion.
“Good,” she said, “ Then my job is done.”
And indeed, it was. She was a perfect teacher—the kind whose goal is for her students to outgrow her, who leaves herself at the door and focuses only on helping you grow, and who is truly satisfied and deeply honored by her students’ independence.
In her memory, I strive to be that kind of teacher. She was one of the most transformative influences of my life, and the best way to honor a teacher like her is to pay it forward to those who will never have the chance to meet her.
Whether you’re a yogi who’d like to learn the skills required to guide yourself and others along the path to true destiny, or a yoga teacher who wants to deepen and expand your influence and gain the spiritual tools you need to guide students through a holistic transformation, explore the gifts that Anne left behind.
Whatever your next step, the most important thing is that you take it.
Just take the next step. That’s how every journey begins.