We've all heard it before, the instructor's closing statement at the end of a class. We've seen it graphically designed on t-shirts and quoted in social media posts. Namaste is complicated in its cultural meanings, and in order to respect the origins of yoga as its students, it is important to understand its nuances.
What is namaste?
From Sanskrit, namaste literally means "I bow to you". It is a term of respect, spoken in conjunction with the hands pressed together at heart center and fingers pointing up (also referred to as prayer hands or anjali mudra) while bowing the head. Sometimes, the hands come together at the forehead with thumbs touching between the brows (the location of the Third Eye chakra) before the hands move down to the Heart chakra. Sometimes, namaste isn't even spoken at all, as the posture of the hands and the bowing of the head all convey the same message without the need for the vocalization. In western yoga, using namaste refers to the divine within one person acknowledging, recognizing and honoring the divine within the other (promoted by spiritual leader Ram Dass in his 1976 book Grist for the Mill). It is about setting aside the ego, connecting with those outside of ourselves and realizing that we are all more alike than different.
While some people regard this gesture of respect with highly spiritual connotations (given yoga's Hindu origins), other people (particularly in India) use it simply as a respectful greeting in every day life, such as toward elders, without any association to religion or even yoga. It is simply a cultural expression, like giving your new boss a handshake. This dichotomy has often caused friction over the use of namaste in the western world.
Why it's complicated.
When it comes to religion, things often get sticky. In 2016, an elementary school in Georgia introduced yoga and other mindfulness practices into their classrooms to help students manage stress, but was forced to ban the use of namaste, anjali mudra, mandalas and other "spiritual" symbols after parents complained that they were pushing non-Christian (ie. Hindu and Buddhist) customs onto their children (Reference). While not all westerners share this belief, this event is proof that there is an amount of people large enough to stimulate change.
For some people, namaste has so much weight and importance within yoga culture that they are offended that the word has been co-opted by western commercialism. To them, phrases like "nama-slay" or "namaste in bed" plastered on t-shirts, mugs and tote bags undermine the "sacredness" of namaste to appeal to a wider, more "western" audience. For other people, the reverence for this single word in yoga that doesn't have nearly as much significance in a different context is simply amusing.
Still for others, particularly those with strong Hindu or Indian roots, the use of namaste in western yoga classes is considered to be offensive in ways that are associated with cultural appropriation and colonialism. To them, the word has been ripped from its original roots as an eastern greeting and taken far out of context by western yoga culture. It is one of many ways, like removing the Sanskrit names for poses, that yoga’s westernization has essentially erased its eastern influences. (More on all of this here, here, here, here, and... well, plenty of other places on the Internet. They're there for you to find.)
So what should I do?
I'm not really here to speak about whether or not namaste should be used in yoga classes in the West. Yoga studios and yoga instructors everywhere are re-examining its place in their classes. Some have removed namaste from their professional use, some continue to use it out of habit and others are still questioning it. With religion, culture and race woven in, it's a sensitive and complicated topic.
I asked a friend and fellow instructor, Shubha Holla, for her thoughts, as she is from India. She says, "Namaste is a polite way of greeting people. It's symbolic to humility and shedding ego. I always think it's a great idea to incorporate Sanskrit in yoga classes, provided the teacher knows what it means and it's not just some script that makes no sense to them. It's like how every living species has a scientific name and a layman term. You can use both, but the former is not going to make sense to everyone. I personally wouldn't buy stuff with quotes such as 'nama-slay' and such, but I also believe in 'live and let live'. I think western influence has a different take on yoga and has commercialized it, but it's to cater to the crowd here. It's important to recognize that yoga has deep spiritual connections in the East and be respectful of the practice."
Of course this is just one opinion, and not everyone of similar origins will be of the same mind. At the very least, if we are passionate about yoga, we can do our best to be respectful of the practice, as Shubha says. We can do our due diligence by becoming more informed about the its origins and complexities in the modern world. Read more, speak to people who are different from you, especially those with Indian/Hindu roots, and have discussions. No matter what your beliefs are, know that whenever you hear or express namaste, it could mean something different to someone else, whether it is spiritual or cultural.