Urban Translations: Namaste


It isn’t surprising that yoga is becoming ever more popular in the West. The expedition to the Americas, after all, was at first an attempt to trade with East Indians. Yet, even here in the United States — the melting pot of the free — the practice is being colonized. There are still intermediate and even “advanced” classes where the most basic Sanskrit word, “namaste” is not spoken.

In some respects, this may be attributed to cultural ignorance (some may believe it to be too exotic or too Hindu of a word), or worse, it may be failed discipline.

Historically “namaste” is quite eloquently, and most commonly defined as “the divine in me bows to the divine in you.” And today, likely because of this, it is most frequently relegated to the close of an asana session, a gesture that the students must first go through an intense mental and physical laundering before getting to the “divine” (although the divine is written into the backs of the very money used to get us into class).

With “namaste” one is instructed to bow the head inwards, extend the fingers, and press the palms together — every point of our own two hands connecting to each other in yogic binding of self to Self (a position known as “namaskar,” the formal version of saying “namaste” in India).

However, this definition is at once lacking and much too great of an effort that only perpetuates the “otherness” of yoga when in fact, “namaste” most simply means “hello/goodbye.”

It isn’t much different from the common Japanese bow, nor from the way Hawaiians use “aloha” as both “hello” and “goodbye” (the latter of which is English shorthand for “G-d be with ye”). And it certainly isn’t different from an ebonics stance (“nah,” as in “no;” “mah,” as in “Mother Nature” and “stay,” as in “be here, be present.”).

It is different, though, in the way it moves the muscles (for even mute students) — essential in a world where many urban-dwellers are oft suffering from constant connection to artificial electricity and a depletion of quality air flow. Indeed, this one word uses several points along the diaphragm, abdominals, lips, teeth and roof of the mouth.

Perhaps, then, it should be the student’s first lesson, as the more we say “namaste” (casually and formally), the less likely we will to have ever felt the separation of the divine in each other in the first place.

To practice: Begin with saying it to yourself without moving your mouth, while going through the three parts of the breath -- puraka, kumbhaka, rechaka (inhalation, retention, exhalation) -- nah-mah-stay.


Photo: Biswarup Ganguly


DISTRICTiYOGA is a RYT-500 located in Washington, D.C. She often uses “namaste” as the first word uttered to students at the beginning of class, as well as the last. She began mindful yogic studies some 20 years ago in elementary school and began teaching formally in 2008.