What Does Namaste Mean In Yoga? From A Greeting To Appropriation

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If you’ve ever been to a yoga class, you will likely have heard the word Namaste said at the end or even at the beginning of the class. This popular Sanskrit term is not only used in yoga classes but also appears on t-shirts, yoga wear and yoga mats.

Namaste has been interpreted in many ways but what does namaste mean in yoga? In this article, we’ll look at:

  • What does namaste mean in yoga?
  • How to use namaste
  • Origins and appropriation
a man in white with hands in prayer

What does namaste mean?

Namaste is a tradition and formal greeting in India. One of the six forms of pranama within the Hindu tradition, Namaste appears in historical texts such as the Rigveda and the Taittirya Samhita.

While it is difficult to trace a single origin of namaste, it is seen in temples and statues within India.

Namaste is part of the Sanskrit language.  It is formed of :

  • namah” = bow
  • te”= to you

Therefore, the literal translation of namaste to English from Sanskrit is “I bow to you”. “Namah” can also be translated as “not mine”.

Is namaste the same as Namaskar?

They are both Sanskrit words. Greeting many people will most likely call for Namaskar while Namaste is more of a one-on-one greeting. Ultimately, they are both greetings.

two indian people greeting eachother with their hands in prayer

What is the spiritual meaning of Namaste?

While Namaste is a greeting, it is thought to have more spiritual connotations. Namaste can also mean “I bow to the divine in you”.

Namaste can also be translated as “the light in me honours the light in you”.

Namaste’s deeper significance recognizes the divinity in all of life. It helps us to develop a sense of oneness with all people.

What does Namaste mean in yoga?

Saying Namaste at the end of a class can be a great way to not only “bow to the divine” in others but as a gesture of gratitude to the teacher and to your fellow students. Although this is not part of its literal meaning. It is a phrase that can remind us that we are greater than ourselves.

Namaste is a great way to remind us that we are part of a collective within the world. It can help remind us of what is sacred.

a woman with hands in prayer in front of sunset

Should we say Namaste?

“The act of selectively choosing what works in popular Western contexts, while ignoring aspects of yoga’s core philosophy and historic practice is telling. It shows an ironic attachment of one’s ego to a desire for ownership over an ancient practice of material denouncement that emerged from an altogether different, South Asian tradition.”

Kamna Muddagouni

In recent times there has been a debate about whether or not Namaste should be said at the end of a yoga class.

Due to colonialism with countries like the USA and UK, yoga and terms like namaste have a more complicated history in the West than their usage in native India.

During Britain’s colonial rule in India, some practices were seen as “threatening” and as a result, were banned. In the following years, the British appointed a more appropriate (in the eyes of the West) and yet appropriated physical style of yoga. In conjunction with this, the nation of India developed a physical approach to confronting colonialism. Both of these things contributed to the physical style of yoga we have today.

Namaste is a word that is important in its meaning, and it deserves respect. Therefore, if you are using the word namaste, it should be pronounced properly.  It’s worth remembering that this is a greeting and an offering of respect. Namaste should not be used to say goodbye, and it is not a form of thanking someone.

a woman with her hands in anjali mudra in front of her head

Don’t forget that namaste is old. It dates back to the Vedas, and taking it and using it without knowing what it means and without acknowledgment of its origins and roots can be viewed as appropriation.

There is no specific origin as to when and where namaste started to be used in postural yoga classes, but it is thought to date back to the 1970s and 1980s.

The use of namaste at the end of a yoga class is a pretty typical thing for most people in the West to experience. It’s worth noting that a lot of the people using the term won’t know what it means or where it comes from, and most people will assume that namaste is a “yoga word”.

Some might say that using the word namaste is a way to make yoga seem more Indian without putting in the work of learning yoga’s heritage. In this way, the use of namaste is cultural appropriation.

According to the oxford dictionary, cultural appropriation is defined as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of one people or society by members of another and typically more dominant people or society.”

With this in mind, many yoga teachers have stopped using namaste in their classes. This is often because they have taken the time and consideration to look at their own appropriation of terms and actions within their yoga practice and teaching.

If you want to look further into cultural appropriation then check out these articles.

a sign that says namast'ay in bed

Cultural Appropriation Of Namaste

Some instances of wrong usage of the term namaste can be found in the slogans that appear on merchandise such as:

  • Namaslay
  • Namaste b*tches
  • Namaste away
  • Namaste in bed

Knowing the meaning and importance of the word namaste should highlight the inappropriate manner of these slogans.

When aspects of a culture are commodified and appropriated for clothing sales and lifestyle practices, then there is a problem. Namaste is not just a word; it represents a deeper meaning of gratitude and acknowledgment. It is part of the spiritual connection of all people.

The true meaning of namaste is not an accompaniment to marketable brands and merchandise. The same goes for yoga, so be sure to skip your purchase of the “yoga made me do it” t-shirt.  

Understanding the culture and history behind both namaste and yoga is important. It is appropriate to get to know a culture that you are taking from and ensure that what you contribute is an appreciation and not an appropriation.

a man wearing orange robes bowing with his hands in anjali mudra

Should we do away with Namaste?

If you’re asking this question, then you’re probably on the right track. Taking the time to inquire into why you do something or say something is an important part of not appropriating.

Some studios will stipulate that namaste should not be used at the end of a class as it is in Sanskrit, which is often deemed inaccessible for people. Arguably it is part of yogas rich tradition which should be honored and used appropriately.

Think about the meaning of namaste and what that word means to you.  Maybe it is more appropriate for you to say “I bow to you” than it is to say namaste. If you don’t feel comfortable saying namaste then think about what the word signifies. How else can you express gratitude and oneness at the end of a class.

While doing away with namaste is not necessarily the right thing for everyone, it is important to zoom out and remember the bigger picture of its meaning, culture and origins.

It can be difficult for teachers to do away with namaste. Students expect it. It’s important to have a strong ending to the class so that students don’t feel flummoxed and it is obvious that it is the end of the class.  For example, you may want to say, “thank you so much for coming” or “may all beings be free. Thank you.” You could even bow your head a little or bring your hands to prayer.

The important thing is you have to feel comfortable saying namaste as a student or as a teacher and ensure that it does not feel appropriative.

a woman in her hands in prayer doing namaste

What does namaste mean in yoga ? – Key takeaways for Namaste

  • Namaste is a greeting that can be used by anyone.
  • It pronounced Nuh-muh-stay. (Don’t forget to place emphasis on the second syllable.
  • A formal version of Namaste would be to bring the hands together in Anjali mudra while saying the word.
  • Be sure to make eye contact with the person whom you share namaste with.
  • Bow the head slightly towards the hands as you say “namaste”
  • Find an alternative if you’re not comfortable with namaste.

Some believe that namaste has a spiritual significance that can be life-changing by providing inner peace. When combined with knowledge of its literal meaning it can help us to change the way we see ourselves and other people.

Namaste is a way of greeting and showing respect to someone. It is used as a greeting for all types of people.

Namaste in the context of yoga means to show respect to one another and acknowledge each other at the end of class.

What next?

Want to find out more about the gesture associated with namaste?  Check out Yoga Mudras | A Beginners Guide.

Photo of author
Sarah is a Brighton-based yoga teacher and teacher trainer with a passion for teaching self-inquiry and rest.

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