A Southern California teacher once considered naming her dog “Nama” (heard at the dog park: “Nama, stay!”) Every yogi or yogini gets the joke, because almost every yoga class ends with the word ‘namaste.’ Why is this word used so often, and why is it important?
Namaste comes from the Sanskrit language, and is a combination of the terms for ‘bow’ and ‘you.’ It therefore translates as ‘the divine in my own self bows to the divine in yours.’ The phrase is usually accompanied with a mudra, or sacred hand position. Both hands are held as if in prayer, fingers pointing towards heaven and thumbs pressing into the heart area. The speaker bows when giving the phrase and the gesture.
The action of Namaste comes from the Hindu tradition, where the hands start at the heart and then move to the forehead in a linking action, implying that both the heart and the mind are agreed. The gesture is meant as a sign of respect and as a sign of harmony, much in the same way as the Hebrew word shalom is used. In other words, the expression of Namaste implies a wish for harmony and peace between neighbors, whether individuals or nations.
Buddhist practice lends a distinct gloss to the word. To greet another with the Namaste gesture means to allow one’s respect for others and the world more importance than one’s personal ego. Thus, to greet someone else with Namaste means that the greeter is aware of the fact that everyone is important, and that everyone has a part to play in the ongoing co-creation of the world. Engaging in a consistent Namaste practice is a way of deflating one of the seven deadly sins, that of pride.
The word ‘yoga’ means ‘union’, and the purpose of yoga is to unite the mind, the heart, and the soul with the Divine energy in the world. Namaste is traditionally used at both the beginning and at the end of a yoga class, although nowadays it is often saved until after savasana, when there is a sense of stillness and integration. Current Western yoga practice draws from Hindu, Tantric, and Buddhist philosophies to varying degrees, and in all of these lineages, the practice of Namaste allows one to participate in a tradition of honoring all that from which one usually feels separated.
Although people often conflate Namaste with specific religious practices, it is a spiritual concept that unites all religions. To experience a taste of Namaste in daily life, consider the ways in which society encourages individuals to separate different aspects of life. Prayer time is different from work time, which again is separate from athletic time, which is differentiated from time at home with family. This draws from the philosophy of Descartes, who believed that the mind is separated from the body. But is this true? Isn’t care of the body important for care of the mind? Doesn’t a good workout create better conditions for enjoying family life? Why is daily life considered separate from that which is holy?
Namaste> can be a casual greeting, or it can be a spiritual practice that can help one to “connect the dots”, so to speak. Upon awakening, greet the day with Namaste> to express gratitude for continued life. Bless food with Namaste to understand the connection between what is eaten and the health of the body. Thank others with Namaste to show that one’s experience is inextricably connected with those of others. What would happen if voting was considered an action worthy of Namaste? If going to work was? In this way, a simple word and gesture that is often seen as a casual ending to a yoga workout can actually produce a fundamental change in one’s life.