In Sanskrit, nama means “to bow,” while as means “I” and te means “you.” So, literally translated from the ancient language of Sanskrit to modern-day English, Namaste means, "I bow to you." But there are more meanings, given, things naturally get lost in translation when we’re talking about a language that’s more than 6,000 years old. In fact, Sanskrit is believed to be the oldest language in human history. This makes yoga an ancient wisdom tradition in the truest sense.
Namaste can also be defined as, “I bow to the light in you,” or more succinctly, “I bow to the divine light in you.” It’s said that our divinity rests in our heart center. This is the reason we place our hands in prayer position, or anjali mudra, at our heart center when we say, “Namaste.”
Yet another translation of Namaste is “the God in me sees the God in you.” While yet another is, “I bow to and honor the spirit in you – the one that’s also within me.” The exact translation is less important than the universal meaning Namaste possesses. It’s a gesture of peace, respect, honor and divinity.
So, when do we use the gesture, "Namaste?” We typically use this gesture at the end of a yoga class. People also use this gesture to greet one another in Eastern cultures. Although, in India, you don’t necessarily need to bow as you say, “Namaste,” because the meaning is well understood simply by saying the kind and compassionate word. It’s got to be the most spiritual and compassionate way to greet someone in the entire world. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Buddhists are known to use the gesture, as are yogis of any faith, the world over.
When we say “Namaste” as we bow to one another it’s like saying hello to the other person’s soul – their essence. And yoga is largely about getting in touch with our soul’s essence through the practice and then residing in that place as we go about our daily lives.
In yoga class, we typically bow and say “Namaste” at the end of class, after savasana. It’s a powerful way of sealing the class and bowing to our teacher. Sometimes we bow to our fellow students, too. By placing our hands in prayer position at the heart center, we’re also placing them in the area of the heart chakra, the subtle energy center of the heart. Sometimes we also place the hands in prayer position at our third eye first, then bring them down to the heart center, and then bow. When we do this, our eyes are usually closed so that we withdrawal our senses from the material world around us. We also let our minds connect more deeply to our heart’s wisdom, so that we can live from this heart-centered awareness in our everyday lives. (Learn more in Integrating Feelings of the Heart.)
Namaste can also be done at the beginning of a yoga class to further the student-teacher connection before moving into the space of healing that is yoga. In doing so we can connect to each other on a spiritual level – without the egoic bondage that so often gets in the way of deep connection. Whether Namaste is done at both the beginning and end of class, or whether it’s done only at the end of class is really up to the teacher. You can follow your teacher and take his/her lead. (Read more in 5 Qualities of a Good Yoga Teacher.)
One of the great blessings of Namaste is that, whether you’re feeling overly spiritual toward the person you’re greeting or not, by simply taking on the gesture, you’ll find yourself naturally moving into that spiritual place. It’s like when we make ourselves smile, whether we’re actually feeling happy or not. The more we sit smiling, the happier we naturally become. No wonder Elizabeth Gilbert was given that smiling meditation by Ketut in “Eat, Pray, Love.” (Learn more in Finding Happiness.)
We can raise our vibes by practicing the gesture with one another on a daily basis. Why not find a fellow yogi friend and practice on each other? You may even want to greet a complete stranger in the street with Namaste and wait for their reaction. Chances are it will be a good one. And even if their reaction is one of bewilderment, at least you’ll be sending love and light their way – which is always a good thing.
In essence, Namaste symbolizes deep respect for the human being to whom you are greeting. This is a lovely way to acknowledge that we’re all equal, all children of God. As the yoga tradition continues to gain popularity all around the world, so will this loving gesture of respect. There’s no doubt we need more love, compassion and respect for one another, and we can only hope that the Namaste gesture becomes just as common as a handshake or a “hello” someday.