Can I say Namaste?
Namaste in western yoga
If you’re a regular yoga practitioner, you may well have heard the word Namaste spoken by your yoga teacher as part of a call and response at either the beginning or end of your yoga class. You may even have responded with the word Namaste, but do you know what it means?
Namaste is so much more than a full stop at the end of a yoga sentence. It is a beautiful word with a rich cultural and religious heritage that needs to be both understood and respected.
A Sanskrit word in origin, Namaste is used as a customary Hindu greeting of deep respect and reverence. And, within its religious context it exists to show those who follow the Hindu faith how to treat others by seeing the divinity within all beings.
What does Namaste mean?
Traditionally Namaste is spoken when the hands are in Anjali Mudra, prayer position in front of the heart, and the head bows. Its literal translation from Sanskrit to English is as follows:
Nama = bow
As = I
Te = you.
“I bow to you” or intended as “The divine in me bows to the divine in you”. There is something so inherently beautiful in those words that we can understand why yoga teachers would want to include them in their classes.
Cultural appropriation vs Cultural appreciation
However, something I am beginning to understand as a western practitioner of yoga is that as much as there are aspects of yoga’s history that resonate with me and that I want to include as part of my yoga practice, the fact that they do not exist as part of my own cultural heritage may mean that I need to exclude out of respect for their origin. To provide context, the British Raj suppressed yoga practitioners in India for hundreds of years. In fact many forms of yoga were subverted by the British until they represented the more asana (physical) yoga practice we see today in western yoga studios. Therefore adoption or appropriation of words such as Namaste with an Indian religious and spiritual origin need to be carefully considered.
Cultural appropriation in yoga is somewhat of a hot topic. Recently Rachel Brathen aka Yoga Girl came under scrutiny on her Instagram feed as she posted a picture of herself with a hair wrap and then went on to make reference to wearing a Bindi. To her credit following the criticism she went on to thoroughly research the topic and wrote an article on cultural appropriation which you can read on her blog here: https://www.yogagirl.com/read
When I cast my mind back to the 90s, I remember my friends and I wearing stick on gem bindis (as sold by the likes of Topshop and made fashionable by Gwen Steffani, lead singer of No Doubt). My ignorance of their symbolism within the Hindu faith was no excuse. Twenty year old me is often a source of embarrassment. I’m just fortunate enough that social media wasn’t a thing then so luckily my worst mistakes haven’t been immortalised for all to see. Now, soon to be forty, I can better understand that there is nuance to everything that we do and as such we need to act with awareness and consideration.
Namaste in a yoga class
When looking at whether its ok to use the word Namaste context is everything. Do you as a student understand what Namaste means and why you are saying it? Another important question to ask is “what is your relationship with yoga?”
For many yoga is a moving meditation in which we strive for meaning through the means of our yoga practice. Yoga provides us with the opportunity and means to discover the Self or a way of finding ‘heart’ in the world. We are able to cultivate our inner witness and strive to be the purest kind of person we can be. In that context yoga’s history becomes deeply important as does yoga philosophy.
There are also those that enjoy yoga as a purely physical practice. Here focus is on alignment within poses rather than on a spiritual level. I’ve touched up on the different styles of physical/fitness yoga before which you can read more about here. Either adoption of yoga practice is fine as you are working with what your body and your mind need and we are all on different paths.
Yoga Teachers vs Yoga Instructors
However, there is a difference between a yoga teacher and a yoga instructor. An instructor can skilfully guide you in and out of each asana, providing you with modifications, working with the physical body. A yoga teacher may differ from an instructor in that they are interested in where you go to during savasana and the journey you take when you are away from your yoga mat. A teacher wants to talk about your spiritual journey as well as your physical journey, they want to help you cultivate your inner witness. So, when a yoga teacher says Namaste, it comes with meaning. But, if you find yourself going to a purely physical class without any reference to yoga’s history or Hinduism, then Namaste is being used as a full stop at the end of a purely physical yoga sentence. In those instances its good to question whether you should use the word Namaste, because in that setting there is no cultural appreciation there is only cultural appropriation.
What do you think?
I’d love to hear your views on this subject as yoga students and yoga teachers. Do you say Namaste as part of your practice? how do you feel when your yoga teacher says Namaste?