Blame the U.S. for reinventing ‘namaste’

It feels like there is a little mini focus on yoga as cultural appropriation going on lately. The latest sign is a piece from Sunday from NPR:

If you take a yoga class in the U.S., the teacher will most likely say “namaste” at the end of the practice. It’s a Sanskrit phrase that means “I bow to you.” You place hands together at the heart, close your eyes and bow.

That’s not the namaste I know.


In the past few years, namaste has reinvented itself. And the U.S. gets a lot of the credit (or blame). After moving to the United States, I went to a yoga class and heard the teacher say namaste. She had her hands joined in front of her, elbows sticking out. Her namaste sounded different than the one I knew. I say, “num-us-teh” vs. the Americanized “nahm-ahs-tay.”

After the class, I started paying attention to what Americans mean by namaste. I got the feeling that they didn’t think of it just as a greeting, but it had a spiritual connotation — a Hindu mantra, a divine chant, a yoga salutation. Using namaste in India never made me feel spiritual in any way. Even in the yoga classes I took in India, the teachers never uttered a namaste.

I suppose someone might argue that the American “nahm-ahs-tay” has a deeper, richer meaning, if you agree with the assessment of the writer, Deepak Singh. Or it is another example of the West squeezing something into its own definition and for its own purpose.

Maybe that’s good, maybe it isn’t.

It’s an aspect of yoga practice that I struggle the most with — well, second to asana. OK, third to asana and quieting my mind. I’m uncomfortable with taking on the trappings of something that isn’t really “mine,” even if someone wants to argue that yoga’s for everyone. And I’ve taken those trappings on, including in some of India’s most holy places. Perhaps it is an uncomfortable fit. At best, I suppose, it is a pull of opposites for me, which I’m more or less OK balancing, as I do much or most of my yoga practice and mostly failed attempts to better myself this go around.

My experience has been there’s a lack of understanding among Western yoga practitioners (serious or less so) of how these trappings came to be part of yoga in the West — and I think that’s the basic point of Singh’s piece.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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