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Namaste Doesn’t Really Mean What You Think

Laura Finch on November 8, 2019
Laura is a yoga teacher who completed 200 hours of training.

I’d been doing yoga for a few years already before coming to India and taking private yoga classes in Rishikesh (read about my experience here). I’ve practiced different yoga styles, changed quite a lot of yoga teachers and studios in different countries. Every single time the yoga class concluded with a group Namaste.

So I felt like a complete idiot when my yoga instructor in India met my closing Namaste with a smile. Though non-judgemental, it made me realize that maybe this is not the exact context in which the word is used.

What Is The Meaning Of Namaste

If you ever enquired about the meaning of the word Namaste, you probably didn't fall short of the explanations. The Internet is bustling with information about the significance of Namaste and how to apply “namaste philosophy” to your life.

The word Namaste originates from Sanskrit – the ancient language of India and is pronounced as num-us-teh [nəməsteː]. The commonly heard pronunciation nah-mah-stay is actually a westernized version of the word (I suppose that's the pronunciation that gave rise to a widely popular pun Namast'ay In Bed a few years ago). It is not inherently wrong, but if we want to honor the ancient roots of the yoga practice, we may as well honor the original pronunciation.

In Sanskrit, namas stands for paying obeisance or bow and te means you. The literal translation is more than straightforward - I bow to you.

Namaste is typically spoken when slightly bowing and making a hand gesture called Añjali Mudrā. The palms are pressed together with thumbs touching the chest and fingers pointing upwards. This gesture symbolizes the opening of the heart and manifests our link to the divinity, a holy spark within each of us. Because of this, we also have more extensive English translations of Namaste such as the light in me honors the light in you, or the divine in me recognizes the divine in you.

The Use Of Namaste In The West Vs. India

In the Western world, I often meet people (hell, I was one of them!) who utter Namaste with some sacred tremble. We are taught the word and gesture are a part of the ancient yogic heritage and put some spiritual significance into it, which goes far beyond thanking or paying respect to your yoga teacher.

Ending a yoga class with Namaste feels like we all together are sharing a great common secret and revelation about the world. The secret that teaches us to be better people.

Such as - we all have a divine flame in us, we are all interconnected and most importantly, equal.

So it may come as a shock to some to find out that Namaste in the country of its origin is used in a daily conversation and means... well, just Namaste – a polite way of greeting someone like hello. It can be interchanged with the less known word Namaskar, which also expresses salutation and is used as a greeting.

My Indian yoga teacher Maneesh explained that the notion of respect is deeply rooted in Hindu culture.

“Ancient scriptures emphasize the practice of showing equal respect and hospitality to everyone: be it the elders, family members or strangers you may have just met in the street,” says Maneesh.

“Greeting a person with Namaste and a bowing gesture is a way of honoring them and letting an individual know they’re welcome here. But I can’t think of any connection Namaste has with yoga practice,” Maneesh courteously explained his smile after me embarrassingly namaste-ing him at the end of the class.

Indian-born writer Deepak Singh also doesn’t seem to share the spiritual significance of Namaste with the yogis from the West, as he told in this story for NPR.

Neither do many Indians online, as I found later on forums such as Reddit and Quora.

Simply speaking, Western society did with Namaste the same thing it did with Indian food: took a general idea and adjusted it to its own taste. In the case of Namaste – changed the pragmatics of the word.

Who started it and why we keep saying Namaste when concluding a yoga class? That question remains to be answered. But it surely isn't the essential part of the yoga practice. Just as it's not brought to the West from India.

To Namaste Or Not To Namaste

Now, this part is totally up to you.

What I encourage you to do is to ask yourself why exactly you're saying Namaste in yoga. Because everyone else does? Because you were taught this way? Or because you put special meaning into it?

Yoga is a powerful personal tool for development. So if you feel like it, there's nothing wrong with bowing your head and thanking your teacher with Namaste at the end of the class.

Going around the city greeting people with Namaste (as this article suggests) might not be such a good idea. But if you do want to send love and light out into the world, small actions such as getting rid of the 'mean girl mentality' (the term borrowed from here) in yoga environment, being kind and accepting, and not being a jerk to others can go a long way.

The idea behind the word Namaste is truly beautiful and charming. We do need more compassion and willingness to relate to other people these days. If saying Namaste reminds you to be respectful, less toxic, and judgmental towards people around you, be it strangers on the internet or companions in your yoga studio, then please say it.

But if you're a yoga teacher closing the class with Namaste, please don't get offended if I don't respond back.

P. S. Warning! The video below is for people with a sense of humor only 😉

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