The most unfamiliar part of my first few yoga classes wasn’t the ambient music. It wasn’t the contradictory cue to “bend down with a straight spine.” It wasn’t the funny names of the poses. It was the teacher ending the class with her hands in prayer position and saying “Namaste” as she bowed to the class. The rest of the class, in unison, assumed the same prayer hand position, repeated the word and bowed forward.
“Whoah! What’s going on here? I thought this was a fitness thing? This feels weird… uncomfortable… Did I just join a cult? “
Of course after a few more classes, it became less alien and I came to expect and reciprocate the word and gesture. Much later on, while studying association and psychology, I came to understand the practical application of Namaste and why this practice has continued in the Western, secular practice of yoga.
Here’s everything you need to know about the meaning of Namaste.
The Namaste Greeting
Much like the Hawaiian “Aloha,” Namaste is used as both a greeting and a farewell. It originates from Sanskrit, an ancient language of India that is over 3500 years old. Sankrit is the liturgical language in which the foundational texts of Hinduism and yoga are written.
What does Namaste mean? There are several commonly accepted translations:
- "I bow to the divine in you."
- "The light in me recognizes the light within you."
- "The divine light within me bows to the divine light within you."
While used as a greeting and goodbye, it carries a connotation of respect and also that of blessing. In yoga classes, Namaste is often used to start and/or end the class and helps establish a rapport and trust between the teacher and students.
The Namaste Gesture
The ‘prayer hands’ posture is called “Namaskar” and can be used to accompany the verbalization of Namaste or alone, as a non-verbal expression of Namaste. It is also known as the ‘Anjali Mudra’ and is commonly used as a greeting and sign of respect in much of the indian subcontinent and southeast asia. While originating in the practice of Hinduism, it is shared by Buddhists, Taoists, Shintoists and now amongst secular yoga practitioners.
To perform this mudra properly, place the palms together, ensuring all ten fingers are pressed together. The base of the thumb and pinky side of the palm should likewise be firmly connected. Bring the hands to heart center with the base of your thumbs gently connected to your sternum. The position of the hands in front of the heart is an acknowledgement of the heart chakra, which yogis regard as the energy center through which people connect to one another.
More Than Words
The Namaste/Namaskar observance is in fact a ritual. This word has religious connotations that may make some people uncomfortable. However a short exploration of the psychology behind ritual can help us better understand what it is and how we can utilize it effectively.
Rituals are simply physical sets of actions tied to an intentional, emotional state. The actions, while performed in this emotional state, come to represent (re-present, present again) the emotional state. The actions, in and of themselves, are inconsequential. However, they become imbued with meaning and utility when the mind creates a connection between the energetic, emotional state and the performance of the ritual actions.
With sufficient repetition, the ritual actions alone can induce the emotional state. For those who are interested in the psychology and neurology of this process, the field of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) is a contemporary practice that is based on the same principles.
One of the most profound benefits of yoga practice is the sense of calm, focused relaxation that is cultivated throughout the class. Typically, this is most strongly experienced at the end of practice. By performing the Namaste/Namaskar in this state of being we start the process of building the connection between state of being and the ritual. After the connection is sufficiently strengthened, the experiential state can be recalled just by speaking the word and/or using the mudra.
Knowing how this process works gives you the advantage of intentionally linking the two, which helps establish the connection more quickly. So! The next time you end your practice, consciously immerse yourself in the emotional, energetic state as you perform the Namaste/Namaskar ritual. Every time you use the word and/or gesture, pay attention to how you feel. Bringing attention and intention to this part of your practice can really reinforce the benefits of this beautiful tradition.