The first time someone bowed to me in greeting was in Thailand, where it is common practice. Naturally, while I was there, I bowed back. It didn’t take long for me to notice how much I liked having a breath to acknowledge the person in front of me. I was sorry to give it up when I left.
In the United States, bowing instead of shaking hands wouldn’t fly in most situations. But, in a yoga studio or an ashram, to greet someone with a namaskar is perfectly appropriate and can be a profound addition to one’s spiritual practice.
Many people who feel comfortable saying namaste haven’t heard the word namaskar before. The verbal greeting of namaste is a part of namaskar; this article is to explain what namaskar is, the significance of each component and the meaning of the salutation as a whole.
The Big Idea
The great yogic sages tell us that realization -- seeing and experiencing the true nature of the universe -- is knowing everything in existence to be Universal Consciousness in manifested form. This means that you and I and trees and rocks and barracudas are, in fact, all one.
Some things are easier in theory than in practice, of course. It’s hard to consider the person selfishly sabotaging a colleague at work to be also composed of the same spiritual material as yourself. There are days when it’s no easier to see ourselves as one and the same with our family member who still refuses to do the dishes than it is to see ourselves as one with the barracuda.
What can be done to remind us that we are not separate after all? Enter namaskar.
A Multi-faceted Gesture
A namaskar greeting has three (or four) parts: verbally saying namaste, bringing the hands together in front of the heart and bowing the head toward the heart. Arguably, there is a fourth component, which is reflecting on the significance of the gesture, or "meaning it."
While namaste generically means "hello," we’ll focus on the more literal meaning here. The root of the Sanskrit word, namaskar, is nama, which means "glory to" or "reverence to." Kar is the same as in karma, and in both karma and namaskar, it indicates action. A namaskar is the act of showing reverence to another person or the act of acknowledging what is sacred in that person.
(For more on Why We Say Namaste.)
The hands are placed together in front of the heart, which is called anjali mudra. Anjali is a powerful gesture. When we place our hands together, we are creating a union of opposites. Anjali is a bringing together of right and left, good and bad, us and them, in recognition of the inherent oneness of all things.
Bowing the Head
Our minds are very good at seeing differences. In practical matters, we rely heavily on this skill. Our highest wisdom does not lie in our ability to divide, however.
Part of namaskar is bowing the head to the heart, consciously setting aside the differences our minds see between ourselves and others in order to experience, however briefly, the unity of being.
Most of what we see and do in our daily lives has to do with setting ourselves apart. We view ourselves differently from our neighbors, and our families differently from other families. We think about who is right and who is wrong. We consider whether we should make one choice or another. We place value judgments on actions and character traits and livelihoods, and when we’re not careful, we take it all very seriously.
Namaskar is an opportunity to take a step back from finding differences and making judgments. With our hands together, we consciously engage our gift for tuning in to what is the same in each of us. Bowing our heads to that gift, we set aside mental conceptions and judgments.
It doesn’t matter if you are a lawyer and I am a janitor or if I am a lawyer and you are a janitor. Beneath mental distinction there is a higher truth, the truth that we are all one, and all composed of the same divine consciousness. The conscious act of namaskar creates a feeling of respect and appreciation for the one we are greeting, and also for ourselves. We are all together, all one.
Experiment for You
I am a big fan of experiments and I would like to offer one to you. While I don’t greet the grocery store clerk or the mail delivery person with all the trappings of namaskar, I do try to create a space within myself for acknowledging whoever is before me. In that space, I mentally bring my hands together and bow my head, feeling a moment of reverence.
(Here's more on 'Holding Space': What It Means for Yoga Teachers and You.)
I invite you to see what happens if you try it for a couple of weeks or months. Do you treat people differently? Are there any differences in how people react to you?
Remember: there’s no need to get all staring-eyes about it. The variable being changed in this experiment is your own mental attitude, nothing external.
A Yogic Practice Off the Mat
Performing a mental namaskar before you begin speaking with someone is a way to bring your yogic philosophy into action. As with so many practices of yoga, the insights offered by this simple gesture increase with repetition and time.
(Continue reading in The Path to Liberation Starts With Our First Step Off the Mat.)