The True Meaning of Namaste (Plus, When to Say and Not Say It)

By now, most people have heard of the word namaste, but only a few know the true meaning behind it.

In fact, while many people might assume that namaste is a yogic term, its origins are much deeper.

Etymology of Namaste

The word namaste comes from Sanskrit. It’s a combination of namas (“I bow”) and te (“you”), which literally translates to I bow to you. If the first particle sounds familiar, that’s because it is also featured in the word namaskar (e.g., Surya Namaskar), which means “greeting” or “salute.”

In terms of pronunciation, the word namaste is broken down into three syllables: nah-mas-tay, with emphasis on the first syllable.

What is Namaste?

Traditionally, namaste is a non-contact way of greeting someone, expressing gratitude, or showing one’s respect. Namaste is usually accompanied by Anjali mudra, with the palms pressed together at the center of the chest, close to one’s heart. To reflect on its literal meaning, the verbal greeting is performed with a respectful bowing of the head in the direction of the person you are speaking to.

The Meaning of Namaste

On the surface, the literal meaning of the phrase is pretty self-explanatory. But is there more to namaste than meets the eye?

While namaste has Hindu origins, many cultures across the world use bowing as a social gesture. In its most prominent form (bowing one’s head all the way to the ground), bowing is usually performed as a sign of worship in several major religions.

In many European countries circa the 17-19th century, bowing was a formal greeting performed by men, specifically among the upper class. However, servants would also bow to express their respect and obedience to their employers.

While European countries moved on from bowing and curtseys to handshakes and kisses, many Asian countries still practice bowing as a primary way of greeting someone and expressing their respect. In some countries, namely Indonesia, bowing may look like a simple nod. In other countries, the degree of bowing (i.e., how low you bow) correlates with the significance of the occasion and the amount of respect you show to the other person. These countries include China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Nepal, and of course, India, which is where the namaste practice originated.

As well as being used as a greeting and a sign of respect, namaste can signify gratitude and appreciation for the person (or people) present.

Namaste in Yoga

In the context of yoga, namaste is usually spoken at the beginning or at the end of the class. When it is said at the start, namaste is a way to greet each other. A teacher saying it to a student (or students) can also use namaste as a way to convey that the students are welcome and accepted.

At the end of the class, namaste has a different connotation. It’s an expression of appreciation and gratitude. It is customary for the teacher to thank the students for sharing their practice and opening their mind to the wonders of yoga. The students tend to echo the sentiment with their own namaste to express gratitude to the teacher for guiding them and to fellow students for sharing their space and energy.

Cultural Controversy

Some people may argue that the use of namaste in the Western context is insensitive or inappropriate. This point of view has a certain amount of merit. After all, the yogic discipline has had a major shift since its introduction to the West.

The main issue with the improper use of namaste is the lack of knowledge or intention behind it. It is only fair that before adopting such a significant term into your vocabulary, you should understand the true meaning behind it. Namaste should be spoken with sincerity and gravitas to honor its origins, as well as its cultural and spiritual significance.

The rise of yoga in the West resulted in namaste becoming one of the best-known Sanskrit terms, especially associated with yoga. Unfortunately, it also meant that once it entered people’s vernacular, it was often used without any regard to the ancient Hindu and yogic practices and ideas.

Arguably, the worst part was that it prompted people to capitalize on this part of the culture without acknowledging its meaning. This is a textbook example of cultural appropriation, which is ultimately damaging to the century-long traditions that are no longer taken seriously.

When NOT to Say Namaste

  • Don’t say it if you do not feel aligned with its energy or its message. There are other ways you can greet people or express your respect genuinely and authentically.
  • Don’t say it to people who do not understand its historical or cultural significance. For instance, if you are traveling through India, and someone greets you with a namaste, it may be appropriate to say it in return. On the other hand, you would not use it colloquially as a simple “hello” in your day-to-day life.
  • If you are a yoga teacher, take some time to explain the meaning of namaste to your students before you say it to them. This way, they can understand and appreciate the significance of the occasion, as opposed to thinking namaste is a Sanskrit way of saying goodbye.
  • Read the room. Namaste is a religious term with roots in Hinduism faith, and using it without merit would be extremely disrespectful, even more so when you do not belong to the Hindu religion yourself. Make sure to always consider the context and the environment if you choose to use namaste as a greeting or a show of respect.
  • Don’t say it if someone with a cultural or religious connection to this term asks you not to. Aristotle once said, “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.” Set your ego aside and respect their wishes. Trust that a person with lived experience can better articulate when using namaste is appropriate (or inappropriate).

Alternatives to Namaste

If you don’t feel comfortable using Sanskrit words in your spoken language, or you made a conscious choice not to use namaste in your practice, there are other ways to express the sentiment behind it, along with the Anjali mudra and a respectful bow. Here are a few alternatives to namaste you can say instead:

  • I am happy to be here in your presence.
  • I feel honored to practice yoga with you.
  • I am grateful for the opportunity to get to know you.
  • It is my pleasure and privilege to guide you (as a yoga teacher).
  • I appreciate your energy.
  • I have the utmost respect for your efforts, determination, and perseverance.
  • I feel aligned with your mind and spirit.

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