You’ve just reached the end of a 90-minute bikram sweat session. After finishing in child’s pose, your instructor sits up, places her palms together, and utters that phrase you hear at the beginning and end of every yoga class: Namaste.
If you’re like me, you hear this phrase two-to-four times a week (if you’ve got the time to squeeze in two classes!). But have you ever stopped to wonder what it means? Have you ever gotten a thrill from this phrase without knowing why? Do you wonder if your yoga instructor even knows what it means?
Namaste is everywhere these days. From tattoos to t-shirts. From yoga videos to music videos. Find out the meaning of Namaste, its origins, its uses and whether or not it has the power to turn you into a total yoga goddess.
Namaste Definition and Pronunciation
If you’ve never heard the word Namaste pronounced correctly, you’ve probably been living under a rock. You’ve probably also been pronouncing it nah-mast-ee (which is how I mispronounced it the first time—whoops!). The proper pronunciation is actually nah-mah-stay.
Namaste is a Hindi word. The literal meaning of Namaste is, “I bow to you.” The first two syllables come from the word, nama, which translates to, “I bow.” Te means you. The more literal translation is, “bow me you.”
So at first glance of the Namaste definiton, at the end of your yoga class, you instructor is simply stating that she is bowing to you and inviting you to bow to her too. Which makes sense, because she usually bows while she says it.
Obviously there’s more to this whole Namaste thing, and I needed answers. A little digging gave me just the answers I so desperately desired.
Meaning of Namaste
While the literal translation of Namaste is “I bow to you,” it actually means so much more. Not only does the phrase refer to the literal bow you perform at the end of class, it refers more to the bow that you and your teacher’s soul performs.
The Hindus believe that at the center of your heart chakra lies a divine soul.
By bowing, placing your hands together as though you’re praying and uttering the word, “Namaste,” you’re actually acknowledging the divine presence that lives inside every one of us.
Since it’s used as a greeting and an acknowledgement as you’re departing, it is spoken at the beginning and end of each class.
Not only is your teacher acknowledging and thanking you, she’s also doing the same for her teachers at the same time. The energy flows through her body, your body and the bodies of all her past and present teachers.
By uttering this phrase, we are stating that even though we are all separate beings, we are all still one in the same. We are all connected.
Have you totally wrapped your mind around the meaning of this phrase yet? Me neither, but let’s move on anyway. As you might have guessed, the word Namaste is not only a set of syllables leaving your mouth, it’s usually accompanied with a gesture.
Place your palms together as if you were in prayer. Your thumbs should be in front of your breastbone (or more accurately your heart chakra). Close your eyes, and bow down at the waist.
The energy from your heart chakra will flow into the recipient. The palms touching each other help to further activate the heart chakra. The act of closing your eyes and bowing down allows you to feel the intention completely.
Not only will your words affect the recipient, your energy will actually leave your body and enter the recipient’s as their words enter you simultaneously in a divine exchange of energy.
If you want to get really respectful, you can place your thumbs in front of your third eye instead of your heart chakra to signify that you have a very deep respect for the recipient.
Though you may say the word Namaste as you perform this action, the word is not necessary. The movement itself says it all—though many yoga teachers enjoy the feel of letting the word fall from their mouths.
History and origins of namaste
Now that we know why we use Namaste in a yoga class, where did the phrase originate? How is it used throughout the rest of the world?
Unfortunately, no one knows where the word originated; though it has been used for many purposes through the years. Some believe it was used to show complete submission to another being. It was also used as a way to acknowledge respect for elders.
The Buddhists also use it to show respect for each other. The phrase is also used widely in Nepal, so you might see this gesture quite often if you happen to travel to this area of the world.
Figurines have been unearthed in India of people in Namaste posture that date back to 2000 BCE or possibly even 3000 BCE, which means the posture—if not the word—has been used for thousands of years.
In some cases, the phrase Namo vah is used instead of Namaste. The phrase has the same meaning, but the vah refers to the second person plural, so the phrase is used when three or more people are honoring the divine in each other.
It turns out other cultures have their own versions of Namaste too. The Japanese use a term Gassho when shaking hands.
When should we use Namaste? It depends on where you are and who you’re greeting. In India, Namaste is used to greet someone or say goodbye. In Nepal, you would use a variation of Namaste, Namaskar, to greet others and elders.
The Hindus use Namaste as a form of worship or offering to a deity. When entering a temple, you should use Namaste as a way to let the deity know you have arrived and would like to give thanks using one of the 16 forms of upachara or offerings.
In India, the phrase is used as a form of pranama or “reverential bowing”. Turns out, there are six types of pranama, ashtanga (which you might have heard in a yoga class), shastanga, panchanga, dandavata, namaskar and abhinandan. All refer to touching the ground with a different body part.
If you’re reading this post, you’ve probably heard this word before and after a yoga class or meditation session. Though the word is popular for many reasons throughout India and Asia, we don’t use it too often unless it’s for yoga or meditation.
The Namaste Symbol
Namaste is commonly connected with the symbol of om. If you’ve ever been to a yoga shop, you’ve probably seen plenty of t-shirts with this symbol. It looks like the number three with a hook growing from its backside, topped off with a dot and a slash above.
Okay, so what the heck does om mean? Without getting too metaphysical or too off track, om is the way most yoga instructors end class (before Namaste) to signify class is over.
It might also be the sound of the universe all wrapped up into one syllable (or three if you happen to subscribe to the idea that it incorporates the sounds of ah-oh-hm).
Om is said to have the power to move mountains. It definitely makes sense that you’d want to just use a symbol instead.
The symbol itself can be broken down into five parts. The tail of the three-like symbol represents the waking state, the one you and I are most used to. The one where we eat, sleep, get the kids up in the morning and zone out in front of the TV.
The hook that protrudes from the backside of the three shape signifies the dream state. Not only does it refer to the time when we’re all literally sleeping, but it also signifies our hopes and dreams.
The top curve of the three shape refers to the unconscious state or the state where we are in such a deep sleep, we don’t even dream. The slash above the three shape refers to a state of illusion. It is also referred to as Maya.
This is what holds us back from achieving our greatest desires (in some cases nirvana). The dot at the top represents the ideal state or nirvana.
This is the point in which we are at perfect harmony with the world around us—the reason why we meditate or do yoga in the first place.
Popular Culture and Commercialism
How did such a spiritual phrase end up on t-shirts, mugs, food, DVDs and energy drinks? Because the western world has turned it into a marketing campaign. Now when you enjoy an energy drink, you’re not only boosting your caffeine intake. You’re sharing a little energy with the rest of the world.
You can take the less-is-more route with a simple tank:
You can show everyone that you’re not just spiritually in tune with the rest of the world, but you’re also funny.
Namaste is even one of the most popular tattoos. Hopefully, everyone who wears this word on their sleeves understands that it’s not just a popular trend. That in some areas of the world, it’s a way to show respect. What do you think?
Frequencies and Vibrations
It never occurred to me how strange it is to not use physical contact when greeting someone. In the west, we greet others (especially strangers) and say our goodbyes with a handshake.
As someone who’s not a fan of germs, I had to wonder if the Nepalese had something here with a greeting that doesn’t require physical touch.
Turns out, the lack of physical exchange has more to do with the spiritual exchange than avoiding germs. It enhances the spiritual vibrations that travel through your body and the recipient’s.
Although the phrase is almost always used to express respect, it can sometimes be used to send negative vibrations to the recipient. Even if you say the word while bowing with your thumbs pointed to your heart chakra, you can send negative vibrations if your intent is to harm another.
If you happen to be on the receiving end of Namaste, you’ll probably feel more vibrations than the person performing this greeting. The giver experiences only 30 percent spiritual vibrations while the recipient feels a whopping 50 percent of vibrations.
It’s also important to refrain from holding objects while performing Namaste as objects can absorb the good vibrations that you intend to send to the recipient. While a spiritual practice isn’t necessary to complete Namaste, it helps to ensure the experience is completed at its highest level.
Everybody ready to hit the mat? Say it with me now, “Nah-mah-stay!” Hopefully you have a better understanding of this mystical word - I know I do.
The next time you see someone donning a Namaste t-shirt, you can smile at them, take a bow and hope that they know as much about this history of this phrase as you.
The next time you take a yoga class, and everyone else looks around the room confused at the sound of this word, you can place your hands in front of your heart chakra, smile big and take a bow.
You’ve not only honored your classmates and your teacher - you’ve honored every teacher in their lineage.