The Meaning of Namaste

For a while, I said namaste after a yoga class when a teacher said it, even though I didn’t really know what it meant. I thought I was following a cultural norm. I didn’t ask any questions.

Then, I stopped. I wanted to know why. Why did I bow to the instructor the way I bow in front of my ancestor shrine? What does namaste mean?

Breaking it Down: Namaste, the Word

I was beginning to learn Sanskrit, so I went to the dictionary for answers.

First, there’s the verbal root nam (pronounced like “numb” but without the b) in Sanskrit meaning to bow, to bend, to submit. (You can see more definitions at the Sanskrit-English dictionary)

Te is the fourth conjugation of tvad and yuṣmad, meaning “you”. (I’m still not clear on the composition of tvad and yuṣmad, I’ll have to get back to you on that one). If you’re inclined, you can check out all the different conjugations in Sanskrit Grammar – Chapter VII: Pronouns. Te is a singular gender-neutral pronoun, a concept we don’t quite have in English, but common elsewhere in the world.

Okay, back to nam. So námah is always used with the fourth conjugation, in this case te, similar to how we might conjugate, for example, in French: je suis, tu es, il est, etc.

Still with me? We now have námah + te, so how did namaste come about?

In Sanskrit grammar, there’s a concept of sandhi (saṃdhi), which is when we have a conjunction or transition between words. There is a sandhi here where námah becomes námas to go with te.

Try it, saying namaste is much easier than namahte, right? It’s like in elision or liaison in French, where de + ou = d’ou (where from) or parle + on = parle-t-on.

Okay, enough grammatical digression, let’s go to the definition.

The Gesture of Namaste

Side note: namaste is not only used in yoga, but in other social contexts as well. For now though, I’ll focus on its meaning in yoga, and to me.

You probably have heard various interpretations of it, such as, “The divine in me salutes to the divine in you”, or, “I honor the place in you in which the entire Universe dwells, I honor the place in you which is of Love, of Integrity, of Wisdom and of Peace. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, we are One.” (That one is quite a mouthful, eh?)

The Cliff Notes version of namaste literally translates to “I salute you”, but it also implies “I salute all”. Yes, te means you, but because it is an equal opportunity pronoun, it recognizes all – you *and* me.

Personally, when I say namaste and/or when I put my hands together and bow, I’m doing two things: one, I am thankful to be able to receive and transmit the teaching of yoga, so I bow to my teachers and students.

Two, I surrender to something bigger, much bigger, The Force, if you will. In other words, when I put my hands together, I’m grateful to have a human birth. I’m grateful for my Life.

To Namaste or Not to Namaste

With that, do you say it? Do you put your hands together in Anjali Mudra? Is it awkward? Is it offensive? Is it cultish?

I asked this very question to my teacher Kathryn Payne one night after apprenticing with her. After deconstructing and reconstructing the word itself, she said, “Whether you do it or say it or don’t say it, the meaning is an experience from within.”

Anyway, I randomly found this on YouTube, and this is where Namaste can be found elsewhere, outside of a yoga class, outside of India, outside of Hinduism, which speaks to its meaning and potential power if understood and used properly, I think.

“Many of our boys don’t have any respect for life, that’s why it’s so easy to kill… We have not been taught to respect each other… And maybe that’s why we have been mistreating each other for much too long.” -Pastor Eddie D. Smith Sr. on The Meaning of Namaste

*Credit where credit is due:

I did not figure all of this out by myself. I am a beginning Sanskrit student with Kathryn Payne, who’s an American Sanskrit Institute teacher. While searching the vast web of the Internet via Google, I stumbled upon a blog by Subhash Mittal, who, after working in the Telecom Industry for 40 years, left to study and teach yoga. Subhash also recently blogged about the meaning of Namaste, and gave me some tips on which mystery of Sanskrit to unravel.

Well, what can I say here, but Namaste?