The Precarious History Of Namaste In Yoga Classes

Both namaste and lycra yoga pants have become so inseparable from asana practice that “namaste” is now printed on the yoga pants themselves in addition to t-shirts, mugs, tote bags and hats. Pronounced “nuh-MUH-steh,” its common mis-pronunciation, “NAH-mah-stay” is so ubiquitous it’s now fodder for less-than-cute commercial products and memes bearing phrases such as “nah-ma-stay in bed.” This article explores the meaning and history of namaste in western yoga classes which will most likely surprise you.
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
meaning namaste in yoga class
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

Whether or not you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you likely recognize the word namaste. Namaste is a greeting, a formal hello. In yoga classes across the western world it’s said in call and response format at the end of each studio session and sometimes at the beginning. Have you ever questioned the use and meaning of namaste in yoga classes? In this article, discover a surpirising history.

The Meaning & History Of Namaste In Yoga Classes

Yoga students and teachers will tell you that namaste translates to “the highest divine light within me honors and bows to the highest divine light within you.” The word is partnered with the gesture of bringing hands together at the heart and bowing. Yet if namaste is a greeting, why do we say it at the end of a yoga class? What are the true origins of this word, and how has it journeyed from those origins to “nah-ma-stay home with my dog?”

Namaste As Hello

Namaste is a Sanskrit-based word which is widely used in the Hindi and Nepali languages. The root word namas, which appears in early Vedic literature, comes from the Sanskrit namaha, meaning “to bend.” This bowing, traditionally to an elder, a teacher, a highly respected individual or a holy being became interwoven over time with secular greetings. 

Today, namaste is commonly used in both Hindu and Nepali culture as a formal and respectful hello.

The root te, also from sanskrit, translates to “you.” Some scholars indicate that the “you” in this instance is not the everyday gross form of you, but refers to the self that’s the soul. This is likely how we’ve arrived at our yoga studio’s favorite translation of namaste, “I bow to the divine within you.”

Namaste as it’s used today is either complicated, or it’s far more simple than we think. In common parlance, we no longer think “go to God” each time we say “adios,” nor do we think “may God be with you” each time we say “goodbye.” While the nod towards this deeper meaning is nice and intentionally present for some, these words have a much more casual meaning in our day to day lives. Many who grew up in Hindu or Nepalese cultures, while taught as children to say namaste to their elders as a respectful hello, have a similar relationship to the word. While on one level, it carries with it a deeper meaning, that deeper meaning is not necessarily present in everyday use. 

That western yoga teachers and their students ascribe a loaded meaning to namaste and use it as a goodbye versus a hello can be particularly confusing, if not outright offensive.

Namaste As… Goodbye?

If namaste, as it’s most widely used in its culture of origin, is a simple hello to a respected elder, what explains its placement at the end of a western yoga class? Why does the teacher bow first to the students and why do we use this greeting as a goodbye? It seems like we’ve gotten it all backwards.  

It’s difficult to pinpoint how namaste became the de facto closure for yoga classes, but two things are true; it’s a decidedly recent tradition and it predominantly occurs in the West.

It’s widely quoted that BKS Iyengar, one of the world’s most well-known yoga instructors, would simply close his classes with “that’s enough for today” while other lineages have traditionally ended class with three oms and a mantra or a dedication to a particular deity or teacher. 

Some yoga teachers use the plural “namaskar” as a workaround for the awkwardness of saying namaste, or “I bow to the (singular) you,” to a group of several students. Yet namaskar is still a greeting making its placement at the end of a class equally questionable. 

If it doesn’t make sense to say the word namaste to end a yoga class and if we’re doing it out of habit versus authenticity, might it be time to let go of the practice all together?

Namaste And 21st Century Yoga

Yoga is a beautiful dance of culture, spirituality and movement. It’s different things to different people, and because of this, there is a yoga for everyone and no one way to do yoga. Yoga grows with us, changes with us and meets us where we are with what we need along the path.

Yoga in the 21st century has adapted, or been adapted, to fit a 60 minute time slot, for example. Yin practices give us respite from our busy and often stressful lives, while power practices fatigue our monkey minds and get us not only moving, but sweating in 100 degree rooms. All of this is relatively “new” to yoga.

Yoga is living and breathing and changing with us and our 21st century lives. Through this process, however, we must be mindful of the difference between adaptation and appropriation.

Read more: Explore the many benefits of yin yoga for body, mind and soul.

The Cultural Appropriation Of Namaste

Cultural appropriation is defined by the Oxford dictionary as

the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, (or) ideas of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”

It’s time we rightfully acknowledge namaste’s origins, and at the same time, question its place in the western yoga class. Namaste is rooted in the culture from which yoga was born, but namaste is not a “yoga thing.” When borrowing from other cultures, we should understand why. The western world’s modification of yoga is in some cases befitting and even lauded for making yoga more accessible. 

It’s widely accepted that we practice yoga asana that a yogi of yesteryear would barely recognize. Many of today’s yoga postures can’t be found in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, although they may have been given Sanskrit names. Saying namaste at the end of a class to a group of students is just as made up as Super Soldier pose and it’s up for debate as to whether or not this is more or less problematic.

In the case of namaste, sealing our yoga classes with a misappropriated word we don’t culturally understand—and in most cases cannot even properly pronounce—seems very “un-yoga like”.

Read more: How much do you know about the meaning of savasana? Learn why it is truly the peak pose of any yoga asana class.

A Call For An Authentic Evolution Of Yoga

Yoga is in part the practice of awareness. It’s time to become more aware of what’s authentic and what’s not, so as yoga continues to evolve in the future, it does so mindfully and respectfully.  

While yoga might welcome new types of movement and creative flows, our intentions in disguising these innovations in old Sanskrit are worthy of questioning. Equally worthy of questioning is our use of Sanskrit outside its cultural context. Especially when it comes to phrases such as “bring your hands together in namaste” and “namast’ay at the bar.”

Is something lost or something gained by taking namaste out of its cultural context and inserting into the end of a class, imbuing it with new meaning? Are we honoring the lineage of yoga and paying respect to our teachers or are we mindlessly repeating what we’ve heard in other yoga classes, without really understanding why? And who gets to decide the meaning behind a word that’s not theirs to define?

What Feels Right For You?

Not all western yoga teachers say namaste to end their classes. Some because they never learned it this way from their teachers and some because after introspection, they have concluded it does not feel authentic to them. For similar reasons, some teachers avoid the use of Sanskrit all together. These teachers have found ways to thank and honor their students that are more in alignment with their personal practice, personal culture and first-hand experience.  

Yoga calls us to think, speak and move authentically. Yoga calls us to become more mindful and aware. It’s up to each of us to look inward and decide if namaste feels right for us in our practice. While there won’t be a singular right or wrong that applies to everyone, there’s certainly a heart-felt yes or no that applies to you. Go with that.

Read more: Discover how to connect with your senses and bring more awareness to your asana practice.

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