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A Word About Namaste

You may have noticed that some of the teachers here have stopped closing their public classes with Namaste, and you may be wondering why. Some of you are even asking me/us, so I thought I would share a little bit about it with you. This post is for the students and friends of The Bhaktishop, who may have questions or be curious about these topics.

There have been a lot of conversations lately, both here and in the wider world, about some of the ways that Western yoga culture has seemed to co-opt many of the ancient practices and teachings of yoga for its own benefit, often divorcing the practices that we like/accept/appreciate/understand from their source traditions in the name of “not making people feel uncomfortable” with a “foreign” practice. While no one here is an expert by any stretch, we do try to have difficult conversations as they are necessary, and to challenge the ways that our own thinking has been affected by biases, both known and implicit. This is one such moment, where we as a teaching community have been having a lot of internal conversations about using Namaste as the closing at the end of our classes, whether or not it feels appropriate, and who gets to decide that.

In the great spirit of transparency and collaboration, we recently decided to have a teacher’s conversation about some of the things that have been shared with us by our mentors and yoga teachers on this topic, as well as with friends and trusted confidants from the South Asian community, and to make space for us all to discuss this and have conversations as a yoga community.

Many of you have seen and participated in the process of us making changes over the past several years in the realm of racial/LGBTIQ/size inclusion and equity, and we have received some very positive feedback and growth based on those group opportunities for learning. We find ourselves at yet another cultural threshold, one that is ripe for listening and learning and growing as a community.

Some students and teachers (here and elsewhere) have expressed discomfort about the mis-use of Namaste in various instances. This year’s yoga school cohort had loads of questions, also indicating to us that there is a cultural shift coming, allowing for deeper questions in the yoga space that have long been absent or simply assumed by western teachers of yoga about appropriation, capitalism, cultural theft and colonization. We discussed the various ways that this yoga center is a deeply conflict-filled space for me personally to hold as a white-passing person in the leadership role. I will be honest and say that this is a role that I do not know how to reconcile, given that my guru has instructed me to teach yoga and share bhakti, other than to be in conversation with other teachers and particularly with mentors from the South Asian community and diaspora and ask them for guidance on this. And then listen to, believe, and respect what they say. I know it is a sticky subject, but I welcome the conversation.

One thing that my decades in feminist/environmental justice work, social justice education, and trying to more fully step into understanding of anti-racist advocacy has shown me is that accountability matters, and so does repair when we gaffe. And wow, do I ever gaffe. Like, a lot. But what matters more than all of that is listening. Deep, honest listening, the kind of listening that says when folks say they find something harmful, we listen and reflect and believe them, and then take action to make change that does less harm, which is, after all, the first of the Yamas and Niyamas: ahimsa. Do no harm. And if you can’t do no harm (because let’s face it, we are all doing some harm every day) then try to do less harm. I really want us as an inspired community to be able to have honest and even uncomfortable conversations, to sit with questions that we don’t know the answers to, and be able to do that without fear. So that we can do less harm.

The following came out of a discussion with this year’s yoga school cohort, and then with the teaching staff. I hope this helps shed light on some of what we are discussing here.

The Sanskrit word Namaste does not exactly translate to "the light in me sees the light in you." This loose, poetic definition was said to be invented/co-opted by Ram Das in the 1960's and perpetuated by lots of folks (including Deepak Chopra) over the years, but Namaste, according to my understanding, is traditionally used toward the deity, or form of God, in a temple. It means “to bow” or “to give honor to the deity,” and it is cogent with/related to the Sanskrit words Namah (like in Om Namah Shivaya) and Namaskar (like in Surya Namaskar.)

So if, as the source texts (like the Bhagavad Gita) say, the Paramatman (which translates to God/divinity/source/The All-That-Is) resides in the hearts of all conditioned souls like us, then there is in fact a deity/God/source in there, somewhere. Can we bow to it and honor it? Yes! However, it doesn’t necessarily directly translate to anything about light. It’s speaking about honor for God, and about the relinquishment of one’s ownership. These distinctions might help us know whether we feel right or comfortable using this term at all, as teachers and students of yoga. Do we believe that there is a soul/consciousness/self/unit of consciousness inside of each sentient being that is quantitatively different but qualitatively similar to what we might call God?

Additionally, there is deep import in how we ought to be honoring the words and language and source tradition itself by using proper pronunciation. There is no long "aaah" sound anywhere in the word. Both of the "a'" sounds are short, as in the "uh" in the word "cup" (not a long "a" as in "father.) It looks phonetically like "nuh-muh-stheh" rather than Naaam +a +staaaaaayyy. As it turns out, this matters a lot to South Asian people when we have borrowed or appropriated their language. Their preference, from what I have learned and heard (and of course South Asian people are legion and not a monolith and opinions on this are as varied as the subcontinent itself) is that if we are going to use it, we ought to try to pronounce it correctly. This is why we have Sanskrit pronunciation courses here every year, and if you are interested in them, you are most welcome to join us!

What the word really means, when broken down by its roots is combination of

namaḥ + te = namaste

namaḥ = "I bow"; this also means "not mine"(na = not, ma = mine)

te = not me, but you/them (meaning all of them, the Gods)

So the word Namaste simply means "I bow" and truly, really means "not mine," as in “none of this is mine, none of this honor belongs to me. All this honor is for God. There is nothing that is not Brahman/God/The Absolute/The All-That-Is, and to that, I offer my heart.”

The utility of this profound word is to help us root out the notion that any of us are "in charge" (meaning you, your personality and your likes and dislikes.) It is a recognition that none of this is ours, we are not the “do-er” of this life, entirely. We have agency, but according to the sacred texts, all is divinity, all is God, including us...and thus there is nothing that is "mine.”

When I listen to some of the people from whom this culture and language and practice originate, they tell me these things and I am listening. It’s important that we try, if we are going to be using and saying these words, to speak them as they are meant to be pronounced, and translate them as taught by Sanskrit scholars, South Asian folks and teachers alike, and say them when they are appropriate. Which leads up to Namaste: it is not normally a way of saying goodbye (though many groups of people definitely use it as a form of initial greeting) and it for sure does not translate to "the sort of obscurely referenced, kind of loosely grasped light in me sees the same vague and unnamed non-specific light in you," no matter what the internet says. This makes many South Asian people go bananas when they hear it; it can be awkward and uncomfortable and borderline harmful for them to hear it translated or used in this way. Particularly, I am told, in a yoga space.

So when Western yoga teachers close their class with the word itself, or even just say this English sentence "the light in me sees/bows to the light in you" (which is in the common collective consciousness of many western yoga people, and who will relate this sentence to mean the word Namaste, even if we don’t say the word) we are maybe perpetuating a mis-translation. Which is perhaps an appropriation. Which we now understand is potentially harmful to the group of humans from whom the tradition came. As practitioners of yoga, we aim to do no harm. Or at least, to do less harm. And this is one simple instance in which we can do less harm.

Here's a collection of writings and articles about this complex topic, in case you are inclined to read more from other sources. Like all things, I encourage self-education and then collective education, as well as courageous naming of the things that need to be named. We cannot initiate change if we cannot see the things that need to be changed.

Also, to be clear, up until recently I still used it as the final word to close my class, though I did not translate it in this way. I have recently stopped using it as a class closing, since I have learned that its potentially odd/borderline offensive that we westerners use it like that, and so have some of our other teachers. If it’s even harmful to one other person, I do not want to continue to do it. That is the very least I can do. I am sorry if it is something that you will miss. But I know that we all have ways of holding reverence and devotion in our hearts, and that we can each practice that reverence in our own way, either out loud or internally. Perhaps with prayers for peace, saying the name of our beloved, whispering to ourselves the name of whatever the God of our understanding is called, offering blessings for the liberation from suffering for all beings, or any of the innumerable other dharmic ways of closing a reverence-filled practice might hold for us. I welcome us all into these changes. If anyone has ideas about what you might like to hear or say instead, I would love to hear them.

As with all things that change, this has involved some education for all of us, like "Why did you take away the nice thing we get to say at the end when we bow? We like it and we want it back!?" And that has been somewhat difficult to navigate, I will admit. So, if you take my classes, you have watched me or maybe some of the other teachers here that have made this choice awkwardly attempt to phase this out in the past months. Thanks for being patient and gentle with us as we have all consented to learn in public.

Mostly, please know this conversation is not an admonishment of anyone, and the teachers here are free to choose what they want to do with the information that we have available and in good, right judgement. Many may still choose to use it, and I support them in their educated choices. I have made no rules, set no limits. I have just offered the education that was generously given to me. Like Maya Angelou says, when we know better, we tend to do better. I just want us all to be clear and aware and have better understanding of what we are doing as often as we can, so that we can all work toward less culturally appropriative practices with a deep, abiding respect for the source traditions. And toward doing less harm.

“A leaf, a flower. fruit. water—whatever is offered to me with a pure heart, I accept that devotional offering.” ~Bhagavad Gita v. 9:26

As always, if you have gotten this far and have not died of old age, thank you. I am here to learn with you and welcome your feedback, ideas and wisdom, and thank you for being part of this community. I am no teacher, though I can refer you to some great teachers. If you are unsure of the lingo or unfamiliar with the concepts of appropriation, cultural theft, empire or colonialism/colonization, Google is there for you and I encourage you to follow the links throughout. If you are nervous about discussing any of this, or you think you might be about to shout or become defensive or offended because of your social location or identity, I recommend reading and listening to South Asian people’s voices, writing, speaking and teaching until things start to make more sense and the urge to shout about it passes. I am here to support that with a wealth of resources for anyone that may need help about where to look for this kind of information. I welcome being challenged and being held accountable for being wrong, and have grown painfully in public and not because I want to listen to myself only. I lack the lived experiences of South Asian people of all kinds and as you perhaps already know, yoga is not my indigenous culture or heritage though it is my life-long practice. But every one of my teachers and mentors and guides says that being Western or white or white-passing or of any other cultural or ethnic heritage does not prevent us from studying and having reverence for the dharma and access to the dharmic teachings. It simply asks us to be more aware, more careful, and to listen more and with open hearts. I believe with my whole heart that yoga, true yoga, can be approached with honor and reverence by anyone, and that we can own up to it when we are told that we are doing harm, and to rectify that harm with changed behavior and deeper understanding. That is true participation and right action in the ethics and culture of these practices of yoga and I welcome all of us into that exchange.

May we all continue to undo suffering wherever we are able, so that we may all experience collective liberation.

Yours in collective power and freedom, Lisa Mae and The Bhaktishop Collective


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