Westernizing a Sacred Traditional Practice, One “Namaste” at a Time

Monday, December 53 min read

When someone rolls out their yoga mat and begins their first sunrise salutation, they may hear the instructor say namaste to start or end class. But what if they said “hello” instead, and then “hello” again, as classmates rolled up their mats to go (much more limberly) through the rest of their day? It would be confusing. But that’s essentially what they’re already doing as they misuse this traditional Sanskrit word, which has strayed quite far from its original meaning.

A Simple Greeting, Gone Awry

Namaste derives from ancient literature, called the Vedas, which laid the foundation for modern Hinduism, a major world religion that originated on the Indian subcontinent. The definition of namaste is “a respectful greeting when giving a namaskar,” and a namaskar is “a traditional Indian greeting or gesture of respect, made by bringing the palms together before the face or chest and bowing.” In Sanskrit, nama means “bowing,” and te implies “to you.”

Westernized yoga instructors and participants may also be mispronouncing this Sanskrit word, which Susanna Barkataki, author of Embrace Yoga’s Roots, explains in a video on the proper use of the word. Instead of the Westernized pronunciation “nam-ah-STAY,” she says the correct pronunciation is “nuh-MUH-steh” with emphasis on the “muh.”

The practice of bowing and saying namaste to a yoga instructor at the beginning and end of a session is incorrect but rooted in good intentions. It’s meant to honor the teacher and to nod to the historical significance of the yoga practice. But good intentions may not be good enough in this case.

Westernizing and Commercializing the Historic Art of Yoga

The earliest of the Vedas, the Rig Vida, incorporated hymns and mantras used by Hindu priests, and this is where yoga began around 3,000 years ago. Mantras (a Sanskrit word meaning “to free the mind”) such as “Om” and “Aum” are meant to be uttered throughout the yoga session. But these words have infiltrated Western culture in surprising and arguably crass ways. #Namastayinbed (“Nah, I’m gonna stay in bed”) is one of many ways that the Western world has commercialized sacred words for marketing and social media purposes. Many Western yoga practitioners probably wouldn’t think twice about the sight of a mug, yoga mat, sweatshirt, or gym bag printed with “Om” or “Namaste,” but it takes the intent to respectfully greet and honor someone out of context.

Other Westernized slang phrases include “Namaslay” (a combination of namaste and the word “slay,” meaning “to be greatly impressive or successful”), “Mama Stay in Bed,” and other potentially offensive puns. Barkataki specifically calls out “namaslay” as a particularly egregious form of cultural appropriation, blurring the lines between Sanskrit and AAVE, or Black English Vernacular.

A Respectful Nod or Cultural Appropriation?

While it may seem harmless to repurpose words from other cultures and change their meaning, some South Asians would disagree. In an NPR analysis called “How Namaste Flew Away From Us,” writer Kumari Devarajan explains how Westerners misuse the word to inaccurately greet someone who doesn’t even associate with that culture. She found out from South Asians on Twitter that many consider the Western uses of namaste to be misappropriating and downright inappropriate. Multiple respondents report “getting namasted,” meaning strangers assumed their culture (incorrectly) and said namaste to them as a greeting. Another Twitter user responded, “Don’t assume it’s universal,” specifying that people in North India are more likely to use it.

Devarajan writes, “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,” which she says happens when most Western yoga teachers have no history, training, or connection to yoga’s origins.  

Others think it’s a mockery that the Western world integrates namaste so casually, criticizing that even the teachers don’t know the meaning and just say it to sound worldly, wise, and sophisticated. The linguistic podcast The Allusionist presents the argument surrounding this controversial word usage, concluding that integrating namaste into Western yoga practices actually goes against values for many traditionalist Yogis (people who practice yoga) who are associated with lineages and religious sects that don’t use it.

Rina Deshpande, an Indian American yoga instructor, wrote in an essay in Self that it’s less about the word choice and more that it represents appropriation, and a history of Westerners cherry-picking traditions. “Yoga, a practice based in large part on self-awareness, self-love, and freedom from material trappings, is now mostly depicted with stylish athletic apparel and spun toward white populations as a spiritually and physically elite activity,” she writes.

So, the next time a yoga instructor ends with namaste, consider refraining, and eventually, instructors might switch to the more appropriate “Thanks for coming.”

Featured image credit: FatCamera/ iStock

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