Understanding Namaste in Yoga

Ritual salutation embodies the nature of yogic learning

Mixed race woman meditating with clasped hands

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The literal translation of namasté (pronounced nah-mah-stay) is "I bow to you." Name means “bow,” té means “to you,” and the "s" connects the words. It is used as a courteous greeting and also as a means of saying "thank you." In yoga classes, it has become traditional for teacher and students to exchange namastés at the end of class as a gesture of mutual respect.

Namasté in Yoga

In India, the Sanskrit salutation namasté and its variant namaskar (Hindi for "I bow to the light in you") are used in daily conversation. People habitually greet each other on the street in this way. They will typically do so with their palms pressed together at the heart, accompanied by a brief nod of the head.

In the west, namasté is used a lot in yoga settings to indicate thanks and esteem. At the end of a yoga class, the teacher will usually bring the class into a seated position after savasana. This is sometimes used as a time for a brief satsang (teaching) or meditation, depending on the type of yoga involved.

Traditional Closing of a Yoga Practice

After the class is formally closed—often with the group chanting three oms in unison—the teacher will say "namasté" and bow to the students. They respond in kind, bowing their heads with their palms pressed together in Anjali mudra at the heart or the third eye (middle of the forehead).

Sometimes everyone will then continue their bow, bending forward from a cross-legged position until their hands or foreheads reach the floor. Taking a bow further indicates a deep appreciation for the teacher. (Doing so is a matter a personal preference; you will not offend anyone if you choose not to bow or cannot bow all the way to the floor.)

Teaching Each Other

Your teacher may choose to elaborate a bit on the basic meaning of namasté. These include sayings such as "the light in me honors the light in you," or "the teacher in me bows to the teacher in you." These sorts of extended interpretations acknowledge that, although you came to learn from the teacher, the teacher has also learned something through sharing the time with you. It also suggests that, as learning and wisdom are exchanged among everyone in the practice, you are also your own teacher.

Meaning of the Anjali Mudra, the Prayer Position

Although Anjali mudra is the position you are meant to take when saying "namasté," the intention of placing one's palm together should not be construed as a form of prayer. The misperception arises from the fact that Anjali mudra is typically described in the West as the "prayer pose." It is important to understand, however, that even though the gesture is one we associate with Christian, Hindu, and other religious practices, it doesn't hold the same significance in the yogic practices.

Anjali is Sanskrit simply means "to offer" or “to "salute," while mudra means "seal." As such, the pose is meant to symbolize the honoring and celebration of this moment.

Yoga is not a religion, and Anjali mudra should not be seen as the worship of any divine being. The modern practice of yoga is entirely secular in nature. At its core is the practice of mutual respect and the respect of oneself and one's body.

1 Source
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  1. Merriam-Webster. How 'namaste' entered the english language.

By Ann Pizer, RYT
Ann Pizer is a writer and registered yoga instructor who teaches vinyasa/flow and prenatal yoga classes.