The Real Meaning of Namaste

By Kate Burne, a Semperviva Yoga Teacher Training Alumni @kate_burne

When it comes to Yoga, the West has experienced a seemingly sudden and exponential growth in recent years. (And by recent we’re talking the last hundred or so. But for a practice that’s nearing on 5000 years old, one would be forgiven using the term with a bit of poetic freedom.) Particularly here in Vancouver, with studios popping up on virtually every street corner, you’d be hardpressed to find someone who has never heard the term Namaste. We’ve seen it inked on body parts, heard it offered at the end of yoga classes, and seen it printed on t-shirts with cheesy puns. Most of us have probably even said it a few times before. But do we really know what it is we’re saying? For all we know we could be offering prayers to gods we’ve never heard of or making promises we can’t keep. And I’ve never been one to break a pinky promise, never mind a vow to Divine Being.

Nevertheless, many of us have likely uttered the word at some point or another. Perhaps even with our hands pressed together at our heart and a slight bow of the head – which itself is a pretty symbolic gesture. So what are we actually saying when we offer up these words at the end of our yoga practice?

Namaste is a Sanskrit word that translates as “I bow to to you.” (Nama meaning bow, as means I, and te means you). So quite literally, Namaste translates as “bow me you”, or “I bow to you”. The term is an ancient Sanskrit salutation that is still commonly used in many parts of India as a greeting. But the word itself carries a lot more weight than a friendly “hello”, and offering Namaste at the end of our yoga practice represents much more than a simple “thank you”. (Though it is certainly both of these things too.)

It’s likely that you’ve heard or seen some of the more common translations, or versions of them, without even realizing it. “My soul honors your soul”, “the Divine in me honors the Divine in you”, “the Light in me recognizes the Light in you” or “the spirit within me sees the spirit within you”, are all variations of the same translation.

Inherent in any utterance of the word, therefore, is the recognition of the Divine in both ourselves and others. It’s an opportunity to recognize our shared struggles and successes, our innate perfection and imperfection, and the ultimate divinity and humanity within each of us by virtue of our human-ness. The term is an acknowledgment of the true soul in one by the soul in another.

The word Namaste is also often accompanied by the gesture of anjali mudra, in which palms press together in prayer at the heart centre and with a slight bow of the chin towards the chest. In the west we interpret this gesture as one of prayer, but within our yoga practice it represents an intention to honor, celebrate, appreciate and respect. Anjali mudra can be found throughout our physical yoga practice as well, for example in Mountain Pose (Tadasana), Tree Pose (Vrksasana) and in Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar).

But empty gestures feel empty and the key to communicating Namaste with sincerity and truth is to really feel and experience its true meaning when performing the gesture. Indeed, both the word Namaste and the gesture of anjali mudra represent the belief that the Divine lives within each one of us at the heart chakra. So with eyes closed and palms gently and lovingly pressed together at the heart center, allow your awareness to rest within the space beneath your hands, maintaining awareness of the potential of what sits within that space. Slightly bowing your head, quietly repeat Namaste – as much externally to the person in front of you as internally to yourself.

It is the very essence of our Yoga practice to recognize the Divine within each other, and in both the ancient and modern-day yoga practice, Namaste is ultimately an expression of peace, respect, gratitude and acknowledgement. Whenever we offer the word with integrity we communicate the belief that “my soul honors your soul. I honor the place in you where the entire universe resides. I honor the light, love, truth, beauty and peace within you, because it is also within in me. In sharing these things, we are united, we are the same, we are one”.