by Jill Miller
The 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 a 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.
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:
“The divine in me acknowledges the divine in you.”
“The sacred in me respects the sacred in you.”
“The light within me reflects the light within you.”
“Greetings.” (I really like this one!)
What is Namaste? And is there another option?
According to 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.”
One 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!
Article reprinted with permission from Gaiam Life.
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