January 30, 2014

The Namaste Cliché.

At the end of every yoga class I’ve ever taught, I press my palms together in front of my heart center, say “Namaste,” and bow to my fellow practitioners.

This three-syllable word, along with final relaxation in corpse pose (savasana), is the one constant I carry with me whenever and wherever I teach or practice yoga. It is a ritual of respect, a nod to the Indian and Sanskrit roots of yoga and a way of expressing my appreciation to the attendees of the class.

I often say things just before the namaste, such as “thank you for sharing your practice with me today” or “let’s close class by taking three breaths (or oms) together, feeling a sense of gratitude for our bodies, our minds, each other, the space to practice, the yoga teachings—and life in general.”

With a gazillion people now practicing yoga the world over, “namaste” has entered the mainstream American vernacular and, sadly, it has become a cliché.

But I still say it anyway. Only in the context of yoga class or sometimes written at the end of an email or letter.

I do not say namaste at any other time. Not to the cashier at Whole Foods. Not when I answer the phone or the door, a la Maggie Gyllenhaal’s New-Agey character in the movie Away We Go.

After class the other day, one attendee—a delightful young “millennial” woman—confessed that she always thinks of a funny video she saw in which they say, “Namaste,” as in “nah, imma stay” when she hears the word.

Now I will always think that, too. It’s hard not to chuckle.

The most ubiquitous translation of the word goes something like, “the divine light in me bows to the divine light in you.”

It is a sacred word loaded with compassion, gentleness and kindness.

I love how they say it in north India with the emphasis on the second syllable. Na-MA-ste. Also, there it’s used all the time as a hello-how-are-you greeting or goodbye-take-care salutation.

I cannot explain why I say “namaste” more eloquently than fellow elephant blogger, Tracey Jansen:

Namaste is not something I say because it’s cool or expected or just the thing yoga teachers say. Before I say it with and to my class, I draw my thumbs to my forehead and then bow and bring my hands to my heart. I sit up, open my eyes and what I see back is priceless.

A group of yogis, having been led through a powerful physical practice and then allowed to rest and have the practice land. The faces that look back at me are beautiful, eyes full of light and love. It is, by far, my favorite part of teaching.

So, will I quit saying it just because mainstream pop culture has turned it into a huge cliche? Nah, imma stay with it!


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Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photos: Olga Kruglova/Flickr, 9gag, elephant archives

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Lizzy Jun 25, 2014 5:28pm

I asked my first yoga teacher what Namaste was in a beginners class once because she said it every class and I am a very curious person. She basically repeated what has been said here, something like the divine light in me honors the divine light in you. I have to say my mind was blown. I will never take this word lightly and the way it was taught to me that day in such simple language but with such genuine love I don't think that I could use the word easily in common language. I am seriously a student (and I feel like I will be in beginners yoga forever (joking… kind of)) and this journey is so confusing, exciting, scary, and hard but so rewarding beyond words. I thank all the teachers who teach yoga, all that I have come into contact with, have seriously touched my soul, like a little tickle in my heart. I feel more alive.

Jules Feb 11, 2014 4:57am

A lovely post. Namaste sure is, and as you said, a word loaded with compassion, gentleness and kindness. Tracy Jansen so put it perfectly – I also feel a huge sense of love and warmth when I see my students sitting in front of me at the end of class and I always say Namaste with a genuine heartfelt meaning…..that I really do see the light in those sitting in front of me.

I am also in agreement with 'Yogibattles' comments – that yoga has become such a cliche and should be removed from many of the areas that I also feel it has no place ( especially the Lululemon stores and Dj Raves) however, was disheartened to read the bit where they stated 'and back into a place where qualified teachers with more than 200 hours experience can direct students safely and properly' – I am one of THOSE teachers. The ones who only have 200 hours. There is nothing cliched about me and my yoga. I DO direct my students safely and properly. Just because I don't have numerous numbers worth of teacher training hours under my belt does not make me any less worthy of being a teacher than one who, perhaps has all the hours and many trips-to-India-for-further-training worth of tales to tell. I had to overcome many obstacles to gain my 200 hours and, in all honesty, don't feel I would be able, or prepared, to put myself through what I went through, to gain further hours. I don't and never have/will profess to know everything, and I admit that I'm still learning – we ALL are, regardless of the number of teacher training hours we might have.

My comments aren't meant to start any form of debate – I just feel that us teachers with only 200 hours have been getting a bit of a hard time lately. Yoga comes from the heart. I teach from my heart – something that can't be taught no matter how many hours have been obtained.

Namaste (said heartfelt and genuinely!)

Jules x

Robyn Feb 4, 2014 8:55pm

Hmm. I first heard the word from Leo Buscaliga.

I'd read it, but I was younger than 10, so it was more or less merely filed away.

If the meaning is so important, why not use the vulgar tongue of the class?

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Michelle Margaret Fajkus

Michelle Margaret is a heart-centered writer, teacher and creator of Yoga Freedom.

She has been a columnist on Elephant Journal since 2010 and has self-published inspiring books. She incorporates dharma, hatha, yin, mindfulness, chakras, chanting and pranayama into her teachings and practice. A former advertising copywriter and elementary school teacher, she is now a freelance writer and translator. Michelle learned yoga from a book at age 12 and started teaching at 22. She met the Buddha in California at 23 and has been a student of the dharma ever since. Michelle is now approaching her forties with grace and gratitude.

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