If you practice yoga here in the US, you likely routinely end your class with the word ‘Namaste.’ Typically the yoga instructor says some concluding remarks that end with ‘Namaste,’ and then you and the other students in the room echo ‘Namaste’ back to him or her. You may or may not put your hands in prayer position in front of your heart or face, and bow forward while doing so.
But what exactly is it that you’re repeating back and gesturing?
In the setting of the typical Western Yoga studio you’re saying some version of, “the light within me sees and honors the light within you,” or “the divine spark within me honors the divine spark within you,” or “I bow to the divine in you.”
It’s this third meaning that is closest to its origin. Pronounced ‘na-ma-stay’ (traditionally with the accent on the MA, and not the STAY, as it’s usually said here in the West), it is both a Hindi and Nepali word originating from the Sanskrit language. The word is made of two root words, namas ‘bowing’ + te ‘to you’ so literally meaning “I bow to you.” Alternatively, namah means ‘salutation,’ so it can also be understood as ‘salutations to you.’ Terra cotta figures in the Namaste posture have been found dating back to 3000 to 2000 BC, so it’s a gesture with a very long (documented) history. Undoubtedly its use goes back much further.
On the Indian subcontinent the word is typically used as a greeting when meeting someone. It’s a gesture of courtesy, honor and respect, often bestowed on older people, and it’s usually accompanied by a slight bow with hands in prayer position at the chest or face (namaskar). Actually, it’s not uncommon for people in India to make only the gesture in passing, as the gesture implies the word as well.
Namaste is also done to express thanks for some kindness or some assistance given, and it can also be used in farewells and parting words – which circles us back to the current usage in modern postural yoga classes.
Although some modern yoga classes do both open and close with Namaste, it’s more common in US yoga sutdios to close the practice with Namaste. The gesture of your hands meeting with the fingertips facing up at the chest, known as anjali mudra, is also usually offered by the teacher, and many people bow as well.
Although not strictly traditional, ending the class in this way imparts an attitude of surrender, humility and gratitude. It is also a way of acknowledging fellow students in the class as well as the instructor. Additionally, it’s a way of recognizing the shared energy and community.
Even though for most people in (and from) the Indian subcontinent the word Namaste is a friendly greeting ritual sometimes used quite casually, it does take on a deeper meaning for most Western yoga practitioners. They offer it to one another as a means of connection and sharing and as a way of saying that they see the true you (the Self, or soul, or atman). Even so, you might want to think twice before tattooing yourself with a word that means “hello” to millions of people…
Beth Purcell is a freelance writer, yogini, bioenergetics practitioner & member of The House of Yogi family. She finds the oft repeated routine of yoga – from asana to breathwork to meditation – allows her to navigate the organic chaos of everyday life and stay connected to the inspiration & creativity innate in us all.
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