What Does Namaste Mean in Yoga?
You hear “namaste” all the time during yoga class, but what does it actually mean? Learn the traditional definition, gestures, why we use it, & more below
In the western world, you can hardly go to a yoga session without hearing this famous word — usually at the end.
Your yoga instructor will face you, put their hands together in front of their chest, and as they bow to you, they’ll say “Namaste” with a sense of gratitude, appreciation, and love.
But what exactly does it mean? And why has it become a staple in yoga practices in the west?
Is it a greeting? A goodbye? Is it something totally different?
Today, we’re going to find out together. Below, we’ll be exploring the depth and intention that namaste embodies, and how — when used properly — it can be a way to respect and honor those around you.
What Does Namaste Mean?
Ever since yoga was brought to the west, namaste has often been misunderstood. Not just in terms of its meaning and proper use, but also its pronunciation.
Namaste is derived from Sanskrit, an ancient language born out of India, and it combines two words or phrases into one.
The first part of the word comes from namah, which means “bow, adoration.” The second part, te, means “to you.”
When you put them together, namaste literally translates to “I bow to you.”
Now, if you’ve ever asked your Florida yoga instructor what it means or taken the time to Google it, you likely stumbled upon one of the English interpretations, such as: “The divine in me sees the divine in you.”
As this translation suggests, namaste has taken on a more spiritual, even divine symbolism in the west — an air of oneness with everyone and everything around us.
But as many Indian natives like Deepak Singh report, this essence of divinity doesn’t apply back home:
“My parents taught us to say namaste as kids growing up in India.
They told my younger sister, my brother and me that it was good manners to say namaste to the elders. It was the equivalent of hello, but with an element of respect…
...After moving to the United States, I went to a yoga class and heard the teacher say namaste…After the class, I started paying attention to what Americans mean by namaste.
I got the feeling that they didn't think of it just as a greeting, but it had a spiritual connotation — a Hindu mantra, a divine chant, a yoga salutation.
Using namaste in India never made me feel spiritual in any way. Even in the yoga classes I took in India, the teachers never uttered a namaste.”
So, how did namaste become the spiritually-charged thankful goodbye that we know it as in the United States? It’s hard to say, but it may have something to do with the traditional bow and hand gesture that comes with it.
The Bow & Praying Hands
When someone says namaste, you’ll usually see them place their hands together in front of them with their thumbs touching their chest and fingers pointed up, and then bow forward.
Especially to someone unfamiliar with this practice, these gestures can come across as spiritually significant and even religious.
Could this be why namaste adopted its new meaning on our side of the planet? There’s no telling.
But whatever the case, it’s our responsibility to uphold the honorable and respectful history of the word by making sure that when we do use it, we do so with genuine intention.
How Do You Pronounce Namaste?
Even if you’ve never been to a yoga class, you’ve probably seen a video or social media post where someone says namaste.
If they’re from the west, you’ll most often hear it pronounced as “nahm-ah-stay.” But traditionally, as Deepak Singh mentions in his article, it’s pronounced “num-us-teh.”
When Should You Use Namaste?
Of course, how and when you use namaste is entirely up to you. But it’s important to be aware of why you’re using it and the specific intention you set when doing so.
Given its true meaning, sharing a group “namaste” with your fellow yogis to show gratitude, respect, and appreciation after a session is perfectly fine.
On the other hand, saying it to the cashier at the grocery store or a stranger at the coffee shop may not be the best use of the word.
If you feel compelled to say namaste outside the walls of a yoga studio, ask yourself why you feel that way, and make sure it’s an appropriate situation that will honor its meaning and respectful nature.
How you use namaste is ultimately your choice. But if it puts you in a grateful, non-judgmental, and loving state of mind that deepens your connection with the world around you, then, by all means, share it with your Florida yoga instructor and fellow classmates!
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Gift one, five, or ten sessions to the yogi in your life for a refreshingly fun and fulfilling experience that will lift their spirits, and maybe even help them knock out a New Years resolution or two!
Wishing you and your family happy holidays from the bottom of my heart!
Yours in better health,