Namaste. You would have heard the word echo at the end of your yoga classes, as your instructor puts their hands together, bows, and gently utters the word. The rest of the class follows and “namaste” reverberates in unison. But did you ever stop to wonder what this term actually means, where it comes from, and why it is used?
It’s Not What You Think
The term “Namaste” has become rather overused and commercialised in new-age spirituality and Western yoga studios. Even people who know nothing about India, its languages, and its spiritual context, are now familiar with the word “namaste” and may even freely use it themselves or wear it on their clothing!
At its core, Namaste is simply a respectful greeting in India. It is both a word and a gesture, and often in India only the gesture is used without saying the actual word, while in the West the word is enthusiastically proclaimed.
It is not just a casual “hello”, but rather a way to show deep respect when encountering another. It can have deeper meaning and significance, but for the most part, South Asians find it quite “cringy” to hear it being used to end each yoga and meditation session.
That being said, the way that the West has embraced Eastern spirituality and willingly incorporates symbols like “namaste” is encouraging and has opened up new ways of using and interacting with these terms, which can also be embraced.
What Does ‘Namaste’ Mean?
In Sanskrit, the word “namaste” literally means “I bow to you”. One explanation is that it comes from the words “namah” meaning “to bow” and “te” meaning “you”. Though many believe that when we say the word “namaste”, we are not only bowing to the individual in front of us, but to all of creation.
So, the simplest meaning of “namaste” is that it is a respectful greeting, which could also be translated as “greetings, salutations, or prostrations to you”. However, the word “Namaste” can also carry a much deeper spiritual significance and meaning.
Spiritual Interpretations of Namaste
“Namaha” can also be translated as “not mine”, so when the word “namaste” is uttered in greeting, it serves to negate your own ego in the presence of another. Also, the definition “I bow to you” can be viewed at a deeper and more expansive level, as meaning “the divine within me bows to the divine which resides within you”.
This comes from the belief in ancient Hinduism that the divine is in all beings and we ourselves are that same cosmic divinity. So, in fact, greeting another with “namaste” is just like that one cosmic divinity acknowledging itself in the form of another.
Correct Pronunciation of Namaste
While many Western English speakers would have come across the term “namaste”, and yoga practitioners in the West frequently start and end their sessions with it, it may come as a surprise that most people do not pronounce it correctly.
Americans tend to pronounce it something like “nah-mah-STAY”. Here, they pronounce the Sanskrit “a” as they would in English, like in “mat”, and put the emphasis on the final syllable. In fact, the more correct pronunciation is “nuh-MUH-steh”. In Sanskrit, the “a” is pronounced as you would a short “u” in English, like in “sun”.
The “e” is a more subtle “eh” sound. Finally, the emphasis is placed on the second last syllable as opposed to the last. The reason for that is due to a more complex explanation of Sanskrit grammar, specifically the difference between “light” and “heavy” syllables. You can read a more detailed explanation here.
If you have spent time in India, you will know that the use of body language in communication is much more pronounced than in the West. You can just about have a short conversation without even opening your mouth. So too, Namaste has its own associated bodily gesture. It is known as the “Anjali Mudra” To perform this mudra:
- Press your hands together with the five fingers touching each other and pointing upwards.
- Place your clasped hands at the chest region with the thumbs touching your breastbone
- Close your eyes while bowing your head or bending forward at the waist.
Alternatively, you can place your hands in front of your “third eye” (at the forehead) and then bring them down to your heart to perform the namaste gesture.
You may say the word “namaste” aloud while performing either of these gestures, or you can simply do it silently, as the gesture itself carries the meaning. In the West the tendency is to say the word aloud, especially in yoga and meditation classes, while in India you will see many people greeting in this way without needing to say anything, or maybe mouthing/whispering the greeting as they perform the gesture.
Origins of Namaste and Namaskar
“Namaste” has been used for thousands of years, and dates to the earliest Sanskrit texts such as the Vedas. It has held significance in Vedic and Indian culture throughout the ages and is now used in all parts of South Asia as a respectful and friendly greeting.
“Namaste” is closely connected to “Namaskar”. Both terms have the same root Sanskrit word “namah” (to bow) which changes to “namas” due to rules of sandhi, and both are used as respectful greetings. The gesture for “Namaskar” is the same as “Namaste”.
There is some debate about the actual difference between these terms. One common explanation is that “Namaskar” is now reserved as a more formal greeting, specifically for greeting elders and important people, whereas “Namaste” is used more freely to greet anyone.
In practice though, these two terms are regularly used interchangeably in greeting. “Namaste” is definitely the more well-known and widely used in spiritual circles in the West, and would be more likely to be heard in a yoga studio than “Namaskar”.
Namaste and The Om Symbol
“Namaste” is both a word and a gesture but does not have its own unique symbol as such. It is regularly connected with the Om symbol, and so many mistakenly believe that the Om symbol stands for “namaste”. The “Om” symbol is also extremely important and significant in ancient Indian philosophy, even more-so than “namaste”.
“Om” is known as the primordial sound and is found in every great spiritual text in the Vedic tradition. These days, yoga and meditation instructors also like to use the “om” sound to start and end sessions, often along with “namaste”. This practice is also sometimes performed in India.
How to Bring Namaste into Your Practice
Namaste is a beautiful term that is filled with meaning and spiritual significance. It can certainly be incorporated into your yoga and/or meditation practice but should be done so thoughtfully and with deep respect. It is good to not just blindly use this term, but to first educate yourself about its origins in Sanskrit and the deeper meaning it holds in Indian culture.
In yoga classes and personal practice, it can be a lovely way to bring in that element of ancient India, the birthplace of yoga. When uttered at the beginning of the class, it acts more as a respectful greeting between the student and the teachers. When used at the end, it is a symbol of gratitude and interconnectedness between the teacher, the class, and the entire yoga lineage.