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.”