Updated: Nov 20, 2020
The recent cultural appropriation debate has also centred on the words that yoga teachers use. It is very common in the West for classes to end with the word ‘Namaste!’ complete with anjali mudra (prayer pose) and a bow. In fact, it is mostly how I have chosen to end my sessions, thinking it was authentic. As a teacher I never wanted to be less than genuine. I have never wanted to do anything that did not resonate with me to just add a bit of flavour or drama. I have never wanted to participate in what might be termed as ‘the taking, marketing and exotification of cultural practices from historically oppressed people’. I just loved yoga, how it made me feel and wanted a nod to its origins in all senses of the word.
You see, it turns out that ‘Namaste’ isn’t exclusively part of the yogic tradition at all. Many yogis in India never use it. Famously Iyengar used to end his sessions with ‘that’s enough for today’ and other traditions may chant 3 oms. ‘Namaste’ is a greeting used by Hindu people to their colleagues, or one that children learn to greet their elders; ‘the equivalent of hello, but with an element of respect’, according to author and journalist Deepak Singh. Webster’s online dictionary also tells us the Sanskrit phrase namaste is formed from namaḥ, meaning “bow, obeisance, adoration,” and the enclitic pronoun te, meaning “to you.” It appears that it only really came into English since Indian independence in the mid Twentieth Century, about the time when the first Indian gurus came to the West. It not used by them but instead it appeared in newspapers reporting on meetings with prominent political leaders of the newly independent country. In fact, it was not used to talk about yoga at all.
In response Nehru closed his palms in front of his chest. This traditional Hindu namasthe (greeting) is as much a part of his public manner as was the V sign for Churchill. —TIME, 16 August 1948
Travellers on flights to India have always been greeted with a cheery 'Namaste' but, interestingly, also since early March 2020, and Covid 19, many global leaders have talked about their decision to shed the handshake and use anjali mudra because of the lack of physical contact and the broad understanding of what the gesture means. These people include Prince Charles, Emmanuel Macron, Benjamin Netanyahu, Angela Merkel and even Donald Trump!
I have always understood that ‘Namaste’ means ‘the light in me bows to the light in you’. I think this is an absolutely beautiful thing to say and I always do explain to students what we are saying. The linguist in me loved the connection when I realised the link to ‘Surya Namaskar’, the Sanskrit name for Sun Salutations. I realised that bowing, saluting, greeting were one and the same. In yoga we have ‘Chandra Namaskar’ also (Moon Salutation). If you know my classes, you’ll know just how much I love this traditional sequence. In this way, we bow to the light of the moon and the sun and also to the light from each other. To me that makes sense. I feel it should be said with meaning, creating a soulful connection. When we bow at the end of a class, it is to acknowledge this, and as I always say, we are also bowing to our own inner teachers. This emphasises how much yoga must come from the heart and be felt within. A yoga teacher can only be a guide. We should stay humble and feel it.
So why might this be a problem? Is it the lack of understanding of the word’s original meaning? In fact, if you look at the Spanish ‘adios’ or the French ‘adieu’, are we really thinking about sending people ‘to God’? Even the humble Anglo Saxon ‘goodbye’ means ‘God be with you’. Do we actually think that every time we say it? And yet, if it is a greeting in India, why are we saying it at the end of the class? It seems like we have got it the wrong way round. Like saying ‘hello’ just as you are leaving. This would seem to suggest that, as Westerners, we haven’t really understood its usage. This is perhaps lazy and to anyone who understands the word in its original context, just a little weird. I remember teaching yoga to a group of young Asian mums at a nursery and when I said ‘namaste’ they laughed. I didn’t know why. They were Muslim women and new to yoga but they must have known the language better than I did, finding it absurd to say ‘hello’ at the end of a session.
Yoga calls us to think, speak and move authentically, without doubt. There is no way I would ever want to be offensive, especially to a culture which has given me so much, a culture and tradition I am learning about. I am at the point now when I have tried to close with something else. I might just say ‘thank you’ or attempt something equally meaningful like ‘Shanti’ (peace). But I feel a different resonance with ‘Namaste’, as if we are honouring each other; teacher and students. The truth is that it feels right, and students seem to feel that too. When we don’t say it, it hangs in the air. So, if it is just a little weird and ridiculous for native speakers of Indian languages, but not offensive, I will probably continue. The moment I know for sure that it is an insult to the beautiful heritage of yoga, I will stop.