Have you ever heard your yoga teacher say “Namaste” at the end of class? Did you wonder what that meant, do a quick Google search, and find something along the lines of “the divine light in me recognizes the divine light in you?” While that is a popular interpretation, it’s not a direct translation from the original Sanskrit. For its true meaning, we have to take a look at how Namaste is used in Indian culture.
Namaste as a Greeting
In Sanskrit, “Namah” is the verb for “to bow.” The direct translation of Namaste is “I bow to you.” It is used in India as the equivalent of hello, but with added respect. Children are taught to greet family, relatives, elders, and teachers with Namaste. For those who are particularly revered, this greeting is accompanied by touching the person’s feet with your hands and forehead. Namaskar, a variation of Namaste carries a similar meaning but is used more as a way of paying obeisance. The word Namaste did not have a spiritual or yogic connection until it appeared in Western culture.
Namaste in Western Yoga
In Western culture, Namaste has come to have a deep spiritual meaning. It is connected to the heart chakra and is interpreted as “the divine light in me recognizes the divine light in you.” This translation incorporates the part of yoga philosophy that asks us to acknowledge others as living, breathing, and feeling beings that should never be taken for granted. We all experience pain, joy, love, and loss and rather than feeling detached or separate from our fellow humans, we should feel connected by our shared experiences. Recognizing the divine light in others means recognizing their humanity.
It also requires that we respect ourselves by recognizing our own divine light. Only when we see it residing within ourselves can we find it in others.
The Evolution of Language
Western culture may have altered the meaning of Namaste and created a connection to yoga philosophy, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Language is adopted, changed, and altered by the cultures it comes into contact with. Even native languages can evolve in their origin countries when slang becomes commonplace or new words are invented and gain popularity. Studios in the United States may be responsible for popularizing a more poetic meaning of Namaste, but in a country that still has a thing or two to learn about respect, it can only help to spread the message of unity and oneness.
How to Say Namaste
To say with your body as well as your words, place your hands together in prayer at the center of your chest above your heart chakra and bend forward in a slight bow with your eyes closed. There are two ways is pronounced, depending on which culture you are in. The Indian pronunciation sounds more like “num-us-teh,” while the American way is “nam-ah-stay.” If you are using the word as a greeting, it is probably better to use “num-us-teh.”
Language and meaning change with time. As our world becomes more connected and cultures share their knowledge, it is only natural that some things will be lost in translation. The next time you hear Namaste, recognize it for what it means for both Hindu and Western cultures: Respect.