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What Are We Really Saying With Namaste?

in YD News
Yes, it's actor Kiefer Sutherland probably most likely definitely saying Namaste.

Yes, it’s actor Kiefer Sutherland probably, definitely, most likely saying Namaste.

What is the meaning of namaste, anyway? Probably a bit different than you think. American yogis know the word namaste pretty well. We hear it in almost every yoga class and translate the Sanskrit word to mean “the divine in me bows to the divine in you” or something close – substitute divine for light or spirit or another good-feeling term. But the word isn’t exactly used that way in India – as in related to yoga – says NPR’s Deepak Singh, an Indian-born writer who was raised to say namaste out of respect and who is quite amused by our “funny and cute” adoption of it.

“It was the equivalent of hello, but with an element of respect. If we didn’t say namaste, they wouldn’t consider us to be good kids,” Singh writes.

To reiterate, the word namaste is not a strictly yoga-related term. Now that may be redundant info for some but we have a feeling this is news to others, especially newbs.

It turns out namaste is said to just about everyone who deserves respect. This can include elders, neighbors, family and extended family, and not everyone (*cough* kids *cough*) were that excited about saying it all the time.

And there were a lot of namastes to say. In India, it is common to refer to neighbors who are your parents’ age as uncles and aunts. The entire neighborhood was filled with uncles and aunts. Thousands of them. Living around so many namaste-worthy people, I remember saying namaste nonstop. Namaste! Namaste! Namaste!

So why do we say it to people in yoga? It’s maybe the watered down version of kissing their feet.

I also developed my own relationship with namaste. My father expected us, mostly me as the eldest son, to touch our relatives’ feet. You bend down, touch the feet with both hands, then touch your forehead. Touching people’s feet, in Hindu culture, is considered to be the highest degree of respect you can give to your elders. It is reserved for grandparents, parents, teachers and a few relatives — ones who were considered as deities.

Singh, who lives in the US has found that yoga teachers here have taken namaste to new levels of meaning, even giving it a more spiritual connotation as in “a Hindu mantra, a divine chant, a yoga salutation.” (see: the divine in me bows to the divine in you.)

But, “using namaste in India never made me feel spiritual in any way,” he says. “Even in the yoga classes I took in India, the teachers never uttered a namaste.”

That was until it started to catch on and boomerang back east.

But then I had an odd namaste experience in India. A few years ago I was visiting Pushkar, a holy Hindu town in the western state of Rajasthan. The town is a major destination for foreign tourists who seek spiritual awakening. When I got there I noticed locals, touts and hawkers in a backpacker’s area, standing on their balconies, or on the front porch of their homes, striking the pose and saying namaste to every tourist who passed by. The smile, tone and style of namaste were exactly like that of the teacher in my yoga class in the United States.

In a world ever-increasingly connected through the internet, technology, and tourism, it’s not surprising we’re seeing a loop around of some cultural conventions and traditions. But it does get us thinking about other ways in which they are borrowed, co-opted and in some cases appropriated to suit the interest of a particular group. It’s not necessarily wrong to say namaste in yoga, but it’s interesting to do your homework and know why you’re saying it (or not). In a way, we could see it perhaps as an opportunity to pay respect and honor to India, the country of yoga’s birthplace, which we suppose is a lot easier than kissing its feet.

Plus, how else would we get these silly puns?

“Hey let’s get a post-class Lululemon beer!”

“Namaste right here in savasana, thanks.”

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Earlier

12 comments… add one
  • The day I returned from my first trip to India 10 years ago is the day I stopped saying Namaste at the end of my classes.

  • Anupma S Lall

    The word is derived from the Sanskrit word Namo which simply means salute. And in the indian society it is a salutation just like hello, howdy, hi. I guess kids all over the world would be reluctant to go around saying hello to all and sundry they make eye contact with but adults would try to inculcate this habit of greeting people.
    As for its interpretation for Yoga, I guess it adds to the mystery and charm of the process.

  • Really interesting article… Yoga has such an interesting backstory and tradition!

  • Norther Harrier

    I have been thinking about removing this at the end of classes bc I figured something like this article was the case. I feel so silly saying it especially when there are Indian students in class. What are other people doing/saying??

  • Carlo

    Language is merely a vehicle of communication. If the west has adopted it to mean something with different intentions than I see no wrong in that. Saluting and giving respect and honor for one another is a practice that is so much needed in these degenerate times. Why let go of that?

    For example, In the Spanish language there are various common words that mean different things in different Latin countries. It’s just words, the intention behind and the majority who have adopted the word to have a significant meaning give it life in society.

    • Ditto Carlo.

      If the meaning has evolved, like so many other words, to mean something more than in the past (or currently in other parts of the world), then not only is there no harm – but language evolvement is part of the human experience. Most the time, anyway 🙂

      Besides, if it’s good for people to change for the better (even if just recognizing a pre-exisitng good already inside of us), why wouldn’t it be so for language?

      And beyond “besides” – if people start phrasing a term, or doing a new custom, history shows there’s not much to be done about that, except accept it eventually as it becomes the new norm.

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  • P P

    So why is India suddenly the authority on everything ancient, are they somehow devoid of aberrant change, forgetting the past and westernization? Saying God bless you means something very different now than it once did, but that has no bearing on its origin. This is a fluff article that misses the point. Namaste has its original Sanskrit meaning regardless, and this is not changed just because (today) people may mutter it in a “whatever” fashion. We chose to honor ourselves or not. The same way yoga is a sacred and spiritual practice to some, a way to stretch to others or a means to seem cool to posers (pardon the pun).

  • Dianne

    One of my best friends is from Bombai and has been doing yoga all her life. She is very well educated, speaks 5 languages. One of them is Hindi as well as two other Indian languages. She also speaks English and French. She told me that in India you would never say Namaste at the conclusion of a yoga class. It is a word used strictly for greeting. There is no word for goodbye in the Hindi language and the use of Namaste at the end of yoga class is strictly an American invention, very odd to her. Thank you for this article. Intuitively, I never felt comfortable saying it and this revelation from both her and this article, confirm why. I always say “peace be with you” or “thank you” when I conclude my yoga instead. That feels real.

  • Soman

    Well, it’s entirely correct that the term is used as a form of greeting in India. To those saying that it’s OK to alter the meaning of a word – rather, evolve it – it really isn’t when the origin language and culture that the word belongs to is still very much prevalant. Quite frankly, it’s stupid to use a word in your own way when people are already using it and have been using it for a long time. It would only serve to hamper language – not aid it. While I understand that when Westerners use the word, they often do so respectfully and with understanding of what it means, it does get rather annoying to have foreigners try to alter something you’ve grown up with just because they’re OK with it and don’t really give a damn. I’m not trying to be mean, but it would be silly, wouldn’t it, if the rest of the world decided to say ‘Hello’ when parting, and insist it’s OK because ‘the word is evolving!’ No, that’s just plain stupid.
    While it’s true that such ancient practices are ones no culture or ethnicity can claim monopoly of, because it only serves to help people, it IS offensive to have people practice something without understanding it, and even warp it disgustingly, like with the stupid drug trance yoga cultures and stuff.
    Thank you for writing this article, buddy!

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