Why Do Yogis Say Namaste? (Definition, Meaning and Proper Use)

namaste

If you have ever taken a yoga class, you have probably heard the instructor end with bowing and saying “Namaste.” In India, this Sanskrit word and gesture is common and understood. In the West, this divine salutation is often used without fully knowing and understanding its meaning and proper usage. Knowledge, devotion, and respect are all key components to empowering the meaning behind a yogi’s favorite way to end their practice.

What does Namaste mean?

To understand the meaning of Namaste, we need to break the word down into three parts. In the first part, Namah is translated as “bow,” “adoration,” or “respectful salutation.” The middle As translates to “I” and the ending Te means “to you.” Thus, the literal translation is “I humbly bow to you.” In yogic philosophy, it is believed that each individual contains a tiny spark of the divine oneness called Atman or Brahman. So in this yogic context, the expanded meaning of Namaste becomes “the divine in me bows to the divine in you.”

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How to say Namaste

Namaste is pronounced “Nah-mah-stey,” and is usually spoken with a slight bow and with hands pressed together in Anjali Mudra or prayer position. Your eyes can be open, gazing at the eyes of the other person or your eyes can be closed. At the end of a yoga class, the teacher will usually end with a Namaste. It is expected for the students to say Namaste back to the teacher and to all the other students. When saying Namaste to someone, feel your heart full of love, kindness, gratitude, and respect towards them.

Why say Namaste?

Saying Namaste is a sweet and humble way to show respect towards another person. It allows you to express kindness, purity of heart, and well wishes for the other person. Saying Namaste provides a powerful opportunity to see and identify the good and virtue in others.

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Should you say Namaste?

Just like chanting Om, you may or may not feel comfortable bowing and saying Namaste at the end of a yoga class. If you are not comfortable saying Namaste, know that it is perfectly okay to be silent and just bow. You can alternatively whisper or say in your head a different word that has a similar meaning to you.

There are many reasons why saying Namaste may not feel right to you:

  • You don’t understand the meaning and intent of the word.
  • It feels culturally insensitive or inappropriate to use.
  • It does not align with your religious beliefs.
  • You don’t feel right speaking Sanskrit words.
  • You do not feel you have enough experience in yoga to fully embody the essence of the word.

Not all teachers say Namaste

Some yoga instructors are uncomfortable ending their classes with Namaste. Instead, they say “thank you” or use another similar word to signal the end of the practice. Some teachers will also ring a bell, chime, or singing bowl. Bikram yoga teachers often leave the room without saying anything. Kundalini yogis end their practice by saying the Gurmukhi mantra Sat Nam, which translates to “I am truth” or “My essence is truth.” Kripalu yoga instructors will often use Jai Bhagwan, which means “may the Divine in you be victorious.”

Anjali Mudra

When asking a group of teachers or students what namaste means to them, we typically hear a wide array of ideas. Most include light, love, the divine, or honor. Perhaps most common is something like, “the divine in me bows to and honors the divine in you.” – Mark Stephens

What does saying Namaste mean to you?

We asked several yoga experts and instructors what saying Namaste at the end of their classes signified for them. They also included some stories on when they first began using Namaste and some tips and advice for students who encounter this word for the first time.

Yoga Teacher Anne Marie Herring recounts how her feelings went from cheesy to deep respect when using Namaste in yoga class.

“When I first started practicing yoga, saying Namaste felt a bit disingenuous and even cheesy. I’d hear the teacher’s explanation that her highest Self sees and honors my highest Self. I felt uncomfortable with the idea that a part of her was speaking to a part of me I didn’t even know about.

My feelings around using the word Namaste shifted after developing a consistent meditation practice. Observing my thoughts and emotions from a place of nonjudgement revealed a better way to engage with the world within and around me. Witnessing internal dialogue places you in the role of awareness or observation. Non-judgemental awareness is within all of us; it’s what we call Higher Self. It is truly Higher, I think, because this way of viewing the mind pulls us up from the day-to-day role of habits and thought processes. Now, when I hear and speak the word Namaste I think of it as showing respect and gratitude to consciousness, to pure awareness, which has driven life in this universe far before and far beyond our current existence.

I would encourage teachers to continue using the word Namaste, even if, and perhaps especially if, they get funny looks from their students. Offering a word that taps on a student’s curiosity is a way to lead them further into yoga, into looking for deeper meaning and a greater understanding of their experience.”

Kino MacGregor, international yoga teacher and host of the Yoga Inspiration podcast, believes you should only use the word Namaste with the utmost respect and devotion.

“Using the term Namaste to begin or end a yoga class requires respect for the spiritual origins of the term and its Hindu roots. Unfortunately, the word Namaste has made its way into the pop culture lexicon. It is often used too casually, without proper knowledge of the word’s origins or the depth required to truly embody devotion.

If you use Namaste to end or begin your yoga classes, it is recommended to do with the utmost respect for Indian culture. In some sense, Namaste has a rather formal, or at least spiritually serious, meaning and origin that can sometimes be lost in casual usage. If you truly mean to bow down in an act of worship to the eternal essence in another being, then this very act could be considered the highest form of yoga. But if you just adopt a term because it sounds cool or exotic and commodify it without respecting the spiritual intention of it, then that could be problematic.

I start and end my classes with my hands resting in prayer position, thumbs towards the heart. This is a common gesture of both greeting respect in India and Asia and is called Anjali Mudra. In Sanskrit, Anjali signifies a gesture of reverence, benediction, and worship. A Mudra is a seal or sign. The significance of the hand position is likened to a lotus bud, representing the very beginning of an awakening in the heart of the spiritual practitioner.”

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Registered Yoga Teacher and Certified Life Coach Mary Kearns uses the word Namaste to recognize the light in each and every one of us.

“I have always used Namaste to close out my yoga classes, and most of my students respond in kind. The one exception was the first time I taught teachers in a public school and wasn’t sure about the culture, so I didn’t use it. But by the third class, once I got to know the teachers, I began to use it, and they all respond with Namaste. I say it from a deep belief in its meaning, that we literally are all manifestations of the Divine.

I was raised as a Quaker (what I call no-frills Christianity), and one of the main ideals is recognizing the Light in yourself and others. In doing so, we feel compassion and unity toward all of humanity. So, I always close out my classes by saying, ‘The Light and Love in me honors, respects, and sees the Light and Love in each and every one of you. Namaste.’ I do this to convey the idea that I see our shared humanity/Divinity, and to remind my students to see that in each other. Hopefully, they then take this out into the world and give others a bit more slack.

For new students, I would encourage them to read up on the word to learn the subtleties of its meaning. And, to understand that it is not religious or dogmatic. I see it as a nice, compact way of saying something that many wisdom traditions say, kind of like saying Aloha.”

Leslie Kiel is a writer for QuickQuote and is an RYT 200 teacher who explains how the meaning of Namaste changed during her yoga teacher training course.

“When I first began practicing yoga, I was mostly searching for a way to stay motivated with exercise. Saying Namaste and bowing at the end of my class felt obligatory. I did it because everyone else did, and it held zero meaning for me. Years later, as I went through teacher training, discovered the meaning, and considered what it meant for my personal practice, my thoughts changed.

I realized sharing this word together at the end of a class can be a way for me to acknowledge we are all in this together, not just with yoga, but with life, too. Just because each person may be at a different place in their own journey doesn’t mean one person’s practice is any more worthwhile than someone else’s. Namaste encompasses all that for me.

When I began teaching, I wanted to try and create a space where no one and nothing felt forced. I decided I’d end each class with a simple expression of gratitude, followed by the word that represents so much tradition, acceptance, and love: Thank you for sharing your practice with me. Namaste.”

Chair yoga teacher Rachel Baer uses Namaste to connect students to something greater than themselves.

“I am aware that there have been a few negative thoughts around using Namaste lately. However, I like to use it as for my students and me as it feels like the word connects us to something bigger, something more than just ourselves and our own little worlds that we live in.

I often remind them in class that we are all connected to each other; we all have the same/similar wants, needs, and desires in life.  We all have hope and dreams; we are all connected to those across the room, across the state, country, and wider. I explain this by the image of dropping a stone into a lake and seeing the ripple reaching out getting bigger and bigger, I often explain that this is the same as our attitudes and how we interact with each other, we can spread and ripple out kindness and empathy or the opposite. When we take that awareness away with us after class it can make a huge difference even if we are irritated at the check out line or stuck in traffic, our responses to ourselves and those around us can really make a difference both to our own well being and that of those around us.”

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Rosie Araujo of Mint Body Studio describes how saying Namaste creates a safe space for her yoga students to let go and experience a sense of oneness.

“It wasn’t until I began teaching classes that the definition of Namaste bloomed within me. Namaste at the end of the class became the solidification of how I was able to touch people’s lives and souls. It’s the ending of an experience I create for people every week in every class that allows them a safe space to let go. And at the same time, it’s the beginning of a new moment of clarity that showers you the second after you say Namaste and open your eyes. I can give it many meanings, such as unity, understanding, love, and acceptance.

I would say, however, the meaning that stands out the most for me and what I’m truly feeling as I repeat this word along with everyone is, ‘we are one.’ We are all experiencing this thing called life together. It’s my way of saying that we’ve made it this far, and we are well on our way. For those that have never heard the word or have never spoken it, you don’t have to. All you get to do is allow yourself to feel it. It speaks without speaking. I don’t see it as either appropriate or inappropriate. It is truly what you make of it and what you let yourself connect to through using it.”

Bestselling author Mark Stephens describes which “you” one bows to in the spirit of Namaste.

“Most yoga students are familiar with Sun Salutations, otherwise known as Surya Namaskar. Here one is bowing to the sun. But it’s not merely the sun that we know as part of the cosmos. In Indian cosmology, the entire universe is found writ-small within the human being with specific representations. The sun, found in the heart, is considered the ultimate source of truth and wisdom, while the moon–the light of which is the distorted reflection of sunlight–is found in the relatively intelligent (and often confused) gray matter of the brain.

Thus, in bowing with the spirit of namaste, one is bowing to the deeper truth and wisdom that resides in their heart. And just as in Surya Namaskar, where some suggest we’re bowing to Lord Surya (the Sun god) in seeking to appease him and thus manifest the light of day, in bowing to someone else with the spirit of namaste they are bowing to the truth and wisdom in the heart of another.”

What does saying Namaste mean to you? We’d love to hear your thoughts on using or not using this sacred word in the comments below!

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