The Hindi salutation “Namaste,” is a friendly greeting and a great way to start a yoga class. Participants can even say namaste to one another as a form of unification.
One of my first introductions to the word namaste was from an instructor at my local gym. She defined namaste as, “the divine light in me bows to the divine light in you.” When she said namaste at the end of class, everyone said it back. It was a genuine exchange of gratitude.
As much as I loved her class, the namaste felt awkward. I would simply respond, “Peace.” Perhaps it was due to my Catholic upbringing. Saying anything other than “amen” at the end of a spiritual experience felt odd.
I spoke to my girlfriend, Rajni, about my reluctance to say namaste toward the end of yoga. She smiled knowingly. Rajni advised that namaste means “hello” and that in Hindi there is no word for goodbye.
Rajni grew up in Pune, a town just outside of Mysore, where Ashtanga was born. She speaks 3 Indian languages: Tamil, Hindi and Marathi and is fluent in English. She studied Ashtanga since she was a young girl, living in India.
After my discussion with Rajni, I approached over a dozen Indian friends, clients and complete strangers to see if they concurred with Rajni.
While on a hike in Death Valley, an Indian man kindly offered to take a picture of my daughter and me, after seeing me struggle with a selfie. In exchange I took a picture of him and his partner against a backdrop of red looming rocks. This seemed like a good opportunity to ask what namaste meant.
He held that saying namaste for goodbye was like a silly cowboy western. He stated, “We don’t say namaste for goodbye, just as American Indians don’t say ‘how’ for hello.” He wanted to make sure I got the picture.
Each time a newcomer of Indian origins takes one of my classes, I usually get thanked for using namaste correctly. I apply what I learned from friends and fellow travelers.
One of my clients from Western India, Shikha, told me that she was really taken aback when she first heard “Namaste” at the end of a yoga class. She thought, “I guess that’s how they do it here.” It must have been bewildering for her.
When we borrow elements of another culture, we have a duty to do so with authenticity. This is is part of the yogic code of satya. It is a way of honoring what is true.
Can you imagine a dance instructor saying “Hola” at the end of flamenco or salsa class? Most Latinos would respond with, “Come se dice?” (“What did you say?”) Almost everyone knows that “hola” means hello and “adiós” means goodbye.
Most of the Indian women and men that I know are fairly assertive, so why aren’t they correcting western yoga instructors? Perhaps it is out of respect.
Rajni explained that it is considered extremely disrespectful to go up to an instructor and correct them in front of a class or to correct them, in general.
Maybe there is a deeper reason. I read an article written by a British ambassador in the 1940’s. He claimed that people in India bowed with a namaskara during a greeting or goodbye. Perhaps this led to the jump in translation, where namaskara and namaste were both interpreted as goodbye.
While it is not clear how namaste gathered a new meaning, it is clear that namaste has been incorrectly interpreted; particularly as yoga traveled along the western trail to our continent. So, how do we proceed and what is appropriate to say going forward?
According to Rajni, instructors in India typically conclude class with a profound silence. The silence lingers like incense in the air and allows time for reflection. It is a sacred silence.
When the students are ready to part, they bow in a prayer mudra and finish class by saying, “Dhanyavaad,” which means “Thank you.”
I often conclude class by saying:
Peace, until we meet again,