It’s Okay to Say “Namaste”

Jill Miller by Jill Miller | August 4th, 2011 | 9 Comments
topic: Fitness, Personal Growth, Yoga

NamasteThe first time I took a live yoga class, at age 12 or 13, I remember hearing some strange, prayer-like, exotic word come out of my teacher’s mouth. Everyone echoed it back, and it made me uncomfortable. It didn’t stop me from going back, but I did kind of feel “left out,” as I didn’t know what they were saying, what it meant, or if it was the name of a god or other deity. Frankly, it sounded kind of religious, and I was definitely not into god-stuff at that point in my ’tweendom.

When my teacher told me what Namaste meant (“I bow to the god within you”) and how to pronounce it (Nah- Mah-Stay), it didn’t necessarily make the phrase any easier for me to embrace. But the social pressure of  “call and response” soon won me over. I attended very small classes in Santa Fe, and any non-compliant Namaste’ers would be very obvious to the teacher and other students. At first it barely rolled out of my lips, a garbled rumble of vowels with slight hiss in the middle. I had no way of knowing that a decade later, I would be the one at the front of the room offering the same salutation to my classes.

Saying Namaste

As a teacher of Yoga Tune Up®, I don’t front-load my classes with too much Sanskrit. I prefer speaking Latin and talking about body parts and bio-mechanical phenomena. So I tend to go light on the Sanskrit, especially when there are new students, because a part of me does not want them to feel intimidated by the words. Trying to get your body parts to move correctly is hard enough!

However, over the years I’ve picked up a few more definitions that have made it okay for me to say Namaste:

1. “The divine in me acknowledges the divine in you.”

2. “The sacred in me respects the sacred in you.”

3. “The light within me reflects the light within you.”

4. “Greetings.” (I really like this one!)

What is Namaste? And is there another option?

According to YogaJournal.com Iyengar Yoga teacher Aadil Palkhivala, “‘Nama’ means bow, ‘as’ means I, and ‘te’ means you. Therefore, Namaste literally means ‘bow me you’ or ‘I bow to you.’”

But not all yogis say Namaste. The Kundalini yogis actually say “sat nam,” which looks a lot like Namaste but flipped inside-out and back to front. One of my NYC friends, legendary Kundalini teacher Hari Kaur, enlightened me by sharing that Sat Nam is also used as a greeting that has loads of esoteric meanings but it roughly implies marrying truth, identity and universal consciousness.

My own mentor, Glenn Black, doesn’t mess around with any complicated salutations; he simply says, “Well done.”

Namaste closure

Jill Miller NamasteOne of the things I love about the word Namaste is that it gives closure to a class. As a teacher who tends to ramble, and has a difficult time with closing statements, choosing instead to add another clause, and then another, and then re-massaging a point, it comes as a huge relief for me to be able to say those three syllables and know that I am finished, and it must be a relief for some of my loyal students to know that I won’t be adding any further context.

Nothing needs to be said afterwards; students quietly roll up their yoga mats, grab their water bottles and wander into their day. One of my dear colleagues in Santa Monica, Julian Walker, likes to say that Namaste means “No More Stay.”

A corny Namaste poem:

Are you okay with Namaste?

Are other thoughts jumping in the way?

It’s a greeting to one and a prayer to another.

But are you willing to bow down to your brother?

Well, I’m okay with Namaste.

But don’t let me have the last say,

Post your thoughts on this today!

Comments

  1. I love this article and it’s a worthy topic. When I first got into yoga a few years ago, I had no idea what it meant. Yes, like you, once I learned the meaning, I was like, “Eh, not so much.”

    Now, I see it as a form of thank you. Especially as it comes at the end of class and I’m feeling refreshed and full of gratitude and goodness. It’s a natural expression at that point. It’s my way of saying gracias to my yoga instructor and showing them love for what they do.

    Jennifer | August 4th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  2. Jill, Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this one…well said and the poem is beautiful. Namaste like you said has many meanings. It can be interpreted as a simple greeting (hello and good bye) in hindi. A common way to greet your elders (respecting them), and to greet God. With your hands together you bow your head in front of God or the supreme power, acknowledging his presence. For some that is how we pray. With our hands in namaste and heads low.

    To me when you or any yoga teacher culminated his/her class with a namaste it is just like saying goodbye (but in a different language). It is no more complicated than that. It is just you acknowledging someone else’s presence and greeting them.

    Namaste!!
    Shruti

    shruti | August 4th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  3. Thanks Shruti!

    And thanks Jennifer. You’ve empowered yourself in your own way with that word, and given it meaning to show appreciation to your teacher. As a teacher, if I have students who do not say “Namaste,” I do not in any way feel that he/she is ungrateful, and hold no expectation whatsoever that anyone will repeat the word after me, especially if they are new. The fact they’ve stayed till the end of class and allowed my work to have impact is thanks enough! :)

    Jill Miller | August 5th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  4. Jai Bhagwan is an alternative to Namaste as well. I found this definition/comparison:

    “Jai Bhagwan is Gujarati and translated directly means victory to the light. Jai Bhagwan is a Gujarati salutation used both as a greeting and farewell. Namasté literally means I bow to you and it is also used as a greeting and farewell. While both salutations have very simple meanings and translations, they are also both full of subtler meaning. Jai Bhagwan can also be said to mean “victory to our glorious/divine nature!” Namasté can similarly be said to mean “I respect/honor/revere you/us/that which makes us both divine” In both cases, the hands are placed in prayer position (palms pressed together, fingers pointing up) and generally placed in front of the heart.”
    from:
    http://www.experts123.com/q/what-do-jai-bhagwan-and-namaste-mean.html

    Alex | August 7th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  5. Sorry to shatter any illusions, but Namaste is to Hindi what Hello is to English.

    Come over to India and you’ll hear this word about as often as you hear “Hello” or “Hi” in the US. It’s a standard greeting. And for Indians or Hindus, it holds no spiritual meaning at all.

    This is one more instance of the West taking something that is intrinsically without meaning for the actual user and transplanting meaning and significance in it. Namaste might be a sonorous, exotic salutation breathing with the resonance of the soul for you, but for the actual Hindus, it is a mere word, a trifling thing you utter out every time you meet someone.

    The younger generation doesn’t even feel the need to join palms when saying it out loud. A nod of the head along with a vague ‘Namaste’ is more than enough when greeting people.

    Pjkak | August 29th, 2011 | Comment Permalink
  6. My acting professor told me I needed to work on my pelvic tilt so I tried yoga. My first class, the teacher brought a harmonium and we began with a series of chants and oms. I felt really weird and uncomfortable, so I put my acting skills to work and pretended I was in a movie about a cult. I swayed back and forth and chanted my lungs out giving one of my zestiest performances. That experience is now one of my best guideposts as a teacher. I ask myself, if I say this, will new students feel like they just joined a cult? Or, how can I contextualize what I’m about to say so my students understand that the ritualistic practices in a Western yoga class remnants of traditions (sometimes drastically re-interpreted) carried forward by us as a continuation of yoga’s long, obscure,and multi-cultured history. I think there is something pretty special about that, but it needs to be explained, and students should also be given permission to opt out if they want to.

    laurelyoga | April 25th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  7. HI guys, while I understand the concerns in this post, I wanted to share my own experience. I am student of meditation and newer to yoga-and while I understand many people do yoga for purely the physical aspect, meditation is the highest form of yoga. Quieting the anxiety and rambling thoughts of the mind is the primary goal of both. I think studying the words and the meaning of phrases used during Yog, including the chants and during the poses will only enhance one’s experience. Otherwise, it’s sort of like trying to learn a new language without taking the time to understand what you are saying. Hope this is helpful. :) Namaste.

    Deena | May 5th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  8. I always have liked the meaning we attribute to namaste (regardless of whether it stays true to its use in India). Even though I am not religious I can appreciate something divine and beyond simple exteriors that resides in each of us, and I like the idea that we can all connect on a deeper level, regardless of the existence of ‘God’ or whatever other deity you might believe in (or lack thereof, in my case).

    Nicole | July 7th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  9. Thank you for your explanation on what Namaste means. When I first began Yoga I felt very uncomfortable with the word Namaste and with the ohms. However, as time went on and I began saying the words (without knowing what they meant) I felt a bit more in tuned to not only my body but connected to the teacher. My son was recently watching me as I was doing Yoga and he asked me what Namaste meant. I told him I wasn’t quite sure, however, I believed it was a way of saying Peace be with you. I guess I created my own meaning by the way I felt at the end of each class. I want to thank all of you for sharing your thoughts and especially Deena — I am going to take your advice and learn the meanings because I agree it will only make the experience that much more meaningful.

    Teresa | January 12th, 2014 | Comment Permalink

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