Namaste: soft “yes”, hard “no”

Two years ago I stopped closing my yoga classes with namaste. It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. In fact, I probably spent six months sitting with the idea and doing test-runs to see how groups would respond before fully committing. Responses fell somewhere between confusion and oblivion. Some students waited a beat, then said “namaste” anyway, as if reminding me how it’s done. And, to be clear, that is how it’s done in many yoga classes in the west.

Some context

Namaste is a Sanskrit word composed of two parts: “namaḥ”, meaning “bow”, and “te”, meaning “to you”. In a literal sense, it can be understood as “I bow to you”, and it’s typically accompanied by the hand gesture namaskar (palms pressed together, fingers pointed upward) and a bow.

Usage translations, however, vary widely – everything from the ultra-spiritual “I honor the place in you where the entire universe dwells” to the ultra-secular “hello”. In the west, namaste has been widely adopted as a way (if not the way) to end a yoga class, often without any explanation of its meaning.

Listening

In my last post, I wrote about my commitment to analyzing the ways in which my participation in yoga may be harmful to those for whom yoga is a cultural birthright. This has been (and continues to be) an imperfect process of listening and trying to do better. In my listening, I heard a number of concerns from Desi people about how namaste is being used in the west.

  • I heard that I was pronouncing it incorrectly. (Also [explicit language])
  • I heard that it’s traditionally used as a formal greeting, not a closing.
  • I heard that, while some people have adopted namaste in good faith, others have co-opted it to sell t-shirts, books, and to build their brand.
  • I heard that there are other ways to end my classes.

I began to consider my use of namaste. I said it because my teachers said it, who likely said it because their teachers said it. I had good intentions – I understood it as a way to honour the students and our time together. But good intentions and cultural appropriation are not mutually exclusive.

So, I asked, is it okay to say namaste? What I heard back was a soft “yes” and a hard “no”.

Soft “yes”

In terms of ending class with namaste, I heard this: If I feel a strong resonance with the word, then I should continue to use it to honour my students and the practice of yoga. But if I feel ambivalent, then I should let it go and find a more personally authentic way to close my classes.

As already mentioned, I opted to stop using namaste as a closing. After consideration, it no longer felt authentic to me. Now I close my classes with “thank you for your practice”, and I continue to have students who respond with “namaste“. And that’s fine.

Hard “no”

About one usage of namaste, I heard a hard “no”. Blatantly co-opting the word to sell t-shirts, books, and other marketing ploys is an egregious example of cultural appropriation. The commodification of spiritually meaningful objects, images, and words is hurtful to those who hold them sacred. Let’s not do that. Let’s not support the companies and organizations that profit from turning namaste into a gimmick or a joke.

That said, if you own a “namaste in bed” t-shirt, be gentle with yourself. Knowing better is doing better. Somewhere there exists a picture of me wearing a bindi as costume jewelry while standing outside a Kyoto metro station in 2006. Now I know better and my bindi days are over.

A final note

I want to acknowledge how painful it is to have someone point out that something you’re doing is perhaps unskillful, and maybe even hurtful. When that happens to me, I tend to get very discouraged (like, why can’t I get anything right?!). I find it helps to step back. Maybe a few days later I can approach it again. It’s a little easier the second time because I know what’s coming. Maybe then I can see it for what it is: a little fork in the road where I can choose to do better.

Image © 2021 Erin Bidlake

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