The Meaning of Namaste

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Namaste has become a common word here in the West. Since I live and teach yoga in a small town, I'm often asked what it means, especially by those who are new to yoga.Many new students have approached me after class and asked what Namaste means. Sometimes they look concerned or suspicious. I think it's the way we say it at the end of class... with reverence, with hands at prayer pose, eyes closed... sometimes inserting a small bow of gratitude. It can be confusing and maybe even uncomfortable if you're witnessing it for the first time.

Let's clear it up, then. ​

Question #1: What does Namaste meanNamaste is a salutation used in India-- the birthplace of yoga. It is a gesture of gratitude and deep respect. I've been to India and from my experience, I've seen this to be true. I encountered it many times in the streets and when I was out and about sightseeing. It's used as a greeting, a way of expressing gratitude, of showing respect, and a way to say good-bye. Sometimes the word is spoken, sometimes it's used as just the hand gesture (with hands together as if in prayer pose), and sometimes they are used together, which displays deep respect. I'll circle back to my experience in India in a few minutes.

Literally, Namaste means: "I bow to you."

Here are some popular translations of the word:
• the divine in me honors the divine in you.
• the divine light in me sees and honors the divine light in you.
• the light and life in me honors the light and life in you.
• my soul acknowledges your soul.
• God in me recognizes and honors God in you.

It is a loving gesture that basically means: I bow to you in respect and gratitude.

Or, think of it this way: I see you, acknowledge you, and respect the divine within you. Isn't that lovely? What an amazing gift that is... to validate and acknowledge another person. It is seeing God in other people.

Albanian born Mother Teresa is well known for dedicating her life to serving the poor in Calcutta, India. It's worth noting that when she served the poor, she didn't necessarily do it to please God or because it was "the right thing to do." She served the poor and sick because she believed the poor and sick were God. She saw Jesus in all of those people, and by helping them, was serving Jesus himself.

Beautiful, right? What if we all lived that way all the time to everyone?  What if we treated people with love by simply recognizing that they are a child of God just like we are.

Question #2: Do I have to say it back? 

Nope. Of course not. No one should force you to do anything, and if a teacher makes you uncomfortable in any way, then don't go back to their class. You absolutely do not have to say it back, and honestly, maybe you shouldn't unless you are sincere about it and understand it.

In a yoga class setting, the teacher sometimes says it at the end of class as a way of showing respect and gratitude. This article written by Aadil Palkhivala and published in Yoga Journal says it nicely: "The teacher initiates Namaste as a symbol of gratitude and respect toward her students and her own teachers and in return invites the students to connect with their lineage, thereby allowing the truth to flow—the truth that we are all one when we live from the heart."

​When your yoga teacher says Namaste to you, we are saying that we honor the divinity/soul/light within you. When you say it in return to your teacher, you are saying that you honor the divinity/soul/light within them as well. You are offering respect and gratitude to them. If you feel moved to say it back to your teacher, then say it. If it doesn't feel genuine, that's ok, too.

Question #3: How do I do it?

No need to make a dramatic production out of it. Just placing your hands in prayer pose in front of your heart is all there is to it IF you even want to do that. If you feel sincere about it, you can choose to say Namaste. If you don't, or if you can't get behind the concept of it, then don't say it. But please keep in mind that although you might choose not to say it, others may. Even if you consider class to be over, respect everyone else by giving them that brief moment to end their own practice in a meaningful way.

Question #4: Why do we say it in yoga classes?

Great question. Something I've learned over the years at yoga trainings is this: stop and think about why you teach what you teach, and why you do what you do.

I choose to end the classes I teach by saying Namaste to those who came to class. When I do this, not only am I acknowledging the place within them that many of us call "divine" or "soul," but I am also expressing my gratitude to them. I am not the only teacher in the room. In every class, they teach me many things as well, and for that I am grateful. Plus, I also appreciate that they chose to spend an hour of their precious life with me. That is something that means so much to me. I have much to be grateful for at the end of every single yoga class I teach.

Let's return to my experience in India. I can vividly recall walking through the streets in Northern India and people of all shapes, sizes and ages blessing me with the gesture of Namaste. It was given with deep respect, and I was honored to show them the same. It is a connection. Guess where the only place I did not witness Namaste was? When I took yoga classes. (Again, this is just my experience only.) How interesting. My point? Stop and think it over for yourself to see if it resonates with you. There is no rule that you must say Namaste at a yoga class. If you feel moved to say it, say it with love and respect. If it doesn't resonate, then leave it.

And here comes a really big thing: don't just say it thoughtlessly. Just don't. It's not a cheap thing to water down. You don't own the word just because you're wearing expensive yoga clothes and are at a trendy studio. Are you familiar with the term cultural appropriation? Here's a great definition from the online Cambridge Dictionary: "the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture."

In the West, we do this with Namaste and even with yoga itself. Ouch.

Remember that "yoga" is not just physical postures used for exercise. It is a whole lifestyle with philosophies, ethical guidelines, and SO much more. Yoga and the word Namaste are from deep within the Indian culture and are very meaningful. The word Namaste itself relays love and respect, so use a little respect for it as well. Let's honor the historical and cultural roots that they come from and not disrespect any of it.

On the other hand, just because you're not from India doesn't mean you can't say it and feel it and mean it wholeheartedly. Remember the article I linked to earlier? It mentioned that it's all about gratitude, respect and connection; "allowing the truth to flow—the truth that we are all one when we live from the heart." No matter where you're from, your skin color, your religion, or your politics, when you honor someone with the gesture of Namaste, you are connecting with them in a loving way and recognizing that they, too, have God within them.

"Everyone Is God speaking. Why not be polite and Listen to Him?" (Hafez)

With respect and gratitude, I bow to you.

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