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To Namaste or Not

Updated: Apr 25, 2021

Giving Tree Yoga + Wellness weighs in on in-class appropriation

Phone with messages saying "Namaste and praying hands emoji" with another message that says "question mark"

There are few things sweeter in yoga than that last bubbling up of good vibes at the end of a practice. You’ve made it through the hard part, pushed yourself, mentally and physically, and now’s the time to take all that internal love and turn it on the rest of the world. You sit on the mat, tenderly holding on to the contentment that has settled within. As the teacher begins to guide you out of the practice, they may utter a simple phrase; a closing to this moment, a greeting of what’s to come, “namaste.”

For many students, this phrase, “namaste,” is as integral to the practice as the asana itself. But just as each individual’s yogic journey changes over time, so does our collective understanding of yoga, where it comes from, and the people that move it forward.

In the Vedas, “namaste” is a salutation to the divine. In Hindi and Nepali languages, is simply a greeting. In Sanskrit, it could be interpreted as “bow to you.” Clearly, the word holds weight for many different cultures.

Recently, a number of yoga activists, including people of color for whom yoga’s East Asian traditions hold particular significance, have spoken out against the yogic use of “namaste,” suggesting that using it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the word’s origins and is symptomatic of appropriative attitudes throughout the Western yoga industry.

Kumari Devarajan explains that using “namaste” in class or as part of general yoga vernacular, particularly when you are not a member of the East Asian linguistic tradition, is a privilege not afforded to all. Plus, assigning ambiguous spiritual significance to random non-English words is usually led by English speakers, which, in yoga, can be particularly problematic.

“Yoga teachers all over the place teach these overblown interpretations of the word to try to ground their classes in a sense of authenticity, or even holiness,” Kumari writes. “It helps that the word namaste comes from a language that is unfamiliar to many of the teachers and practitioners of yoga in the U.S. It's much easier to exaggerate the meaning of a word that sounds foreign.”

Christy Newsome, an ERYT-500 and Certified Yoga Therapist who teaches at Giving Tree Yoga + Wellness, heard these critiques and knew a change was needed. ““Since I started doing and teaching yoga, I was told ‘namaste’ meant ‘the light in me honors the light in you,’ or other various versions of that,” she says. “As it turns out, that’s not what it means at all and it was never a yoga thing until it came to the West. …Once I realized it didn’t mean what I thought it did, it no longer felt authentic or appropriate to use it at the end of my classes.”

Yoga philosophy insists on respect for all regardless of where they are on their journey. Not only could saying “namaste” in class demonstrate a lack of understanding of yogic roots, but it could also have a direct emotional impact on students. Rumya Patcha touches on this in her blog, writing that using “namaste” incorrectly can reinforce “the idea that brown bodies and therefore their languages and cultures are merely commodities or ‘souvenirs’ to be bought and sold by white tourists is not an unfamiliar concept in the United States.”

Regardless of how “namaste” makes you feel as an individual, it is perhaps more important to consider how using it may make others feel.

“I think when we know better, we should do better,” says Christy, who also recognizes that the same grace should be applied to teachers, when deciding whether to employ “namaste” in their classes. “We are all on our own journey, and I know that not everyone is on my path, or if they are, they may not be in the same location.”

Yoga is a deeply personal practice, and when people’s personal beliefs come together in such a vulnerable setting, it isn’t always harmonious. However, as yogis, it’s our responsibility to consider not only our intent, but our impact. “I want my students to leave class knowing they have been given the opportunity to do their own work on their mat, to feel loved, that I will welcome them back, and that I am grateful they allowed me to share the practice with them,” says Christy, who relies on a number of alternatives to close her classes.

“A simple ‘thank you’ is always a great way to end a class,” she says. “My current closing is adapted from a meditation: ‘May you be happy, may you be healthy, and may you live with ease.’ I think whatever is authentic and from the heart will work. Just make sure whatever you use, you know what it truly means.”

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