What Does Namaste Really Mean? Experts Weigh In & Explain How To Use It
Enter virtually any yoga studio in the United States and you can guarantee one thing: A vast majority of teachers will end their class by saying namaste. But what does this Sanskrit word really mean, and how has it evolved since it was first uttered thousands of years ago?
Here, we dig into namaste's history, usage, and meaning, according to religious studies experts, to clear up any confusion about the often tossed-around term.
What does namaste mean?
Despite what you may have seen or heard, namaste does not directly translate to, "The light in me sees the light in you" but is rather a greeting that translates to something like, "Salutations to you."
According to Steven Vose, Ph.D., a religious studies expert and visiting assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Denver, namaste is actually two words, with namah translating to terms like "praise," "honor," "bowing," "reverential salutation," and "adoration."
The second word, te, means "to you," in this context. So put it together and namaste means, "Praise to you," "Salutations to you," "Honor to you," or "[I] bow to you."
Vose tells mindbodygreen that Namaste or namaskāra appear in Sanskrit literature going back to the Rig Veda and Atharva Veda around 1500 to 1000 BCE, and also appear in the Mahābhārata (400 BCE to 400 CE) and Bhāgavata Purāṇa (10th century CE). Namaste also appears in major works of Sanskrit literature and in countless inscriptions, he adds.
"In modern usage in India, [namaste] has the symbolic weight of 'hello' in most contexts, unless one is specifically praising one's guru, teacher, elder, etc.," Vose explains, adding that other greetings, like "Jai Shri Krishna," are becoming more popular in India today than namaste.
Lastly, it's important to note that Jains, Buddhists, and even Sikhs have also used the term, so it's not exclusive to Hindus, according to Vose.
Meaning & symbolism
As the practice of yoga has seen a rise in popularity in Western culture, so, too, has the use of namaste, with the word not only being spoken at the end of a yoga class but also plastered on tote bags and water bottles. You may have even seen punny incidences of the term, such as "nama-slay" on a T-shirt, or "nama-stay in bed" on a throw pillow.
This is where things get a bit dicey. As aforementioned, namaste is simply a greeting of reverence or honor, but many people in the West think it has a more divine or spiritual meaning than that.
And according to assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Denver, Dheepa Sundaram, Ph.D., while the idea that "the divine in me sees and honors the divine in you" is a nice sentiment, namaste has become overused and misconstrued. It does translate to, "I honor you," she previously told mindbodygreen, but in India, it's simply an equivalent to "hello" or "welcome."
In this way, when we think about how namaste has been misconstrued, it offers a microcosmic example of the larger problem of cultural appropriation. Not only do yoga students not realize what the term actually means at the end of a class, but those same students also likely don't know about the origins of yoga as a lifestyle beyond the physical practice. All the while, yoga teachers and studio owners benefit from hijacking the term and using it to fit some spiritual, yogic image.
This is made all the more ironic when you consider that namaste means "hello," and it's said at the end of class. And when you factor in the "nama-slay" shirts, Vose says, this clearly tells us that "the term has become a signifier of all sorts of cultural meanings that are absent of its semantic meaning in Sanskrit."
Instead of its true semantic meaning, he says, namaste has become a marker of yoga culture in the U.S., with some even using it in a ridiculing way to poke fun at Euro-American yoga culture.
How to use namaste
So, is it OK to say namaste if you're not of Indian descent? As a white yoga teacher in the U.S. myself, I asked the same question and eventually stopped saying it once I did my own research. But the decision is up to you, and according to Sundaram, "No one should not use namaste—but we shouldn't impart meaning to it that doesn't exist because that's when we start to exoticize cultures we don't understand."
As Vose adds, saying namaste is not necessarily an unwelcome form of appropriation, but it has been inappropriately used in contexts of yoga practice. Often, when divorced from its meaning, he says, it's then used like a badge by people who want to be seen in a certain "spiritual" light.
If you feel like you've used the term that way in the past, consider this a sign to find a new catchphrase. And definitely, definitely don't bow and say "namaste" to someone just because you think they could be of Indian descent.
If you're in a yoga class and want to say it back to your teacher at the end of class, don't feel like you can't—but also don't feel like you have to. Given you now know what the term truly means, you might feel a simple "thank you" makes more sense.
Should someone offer you a genuine greeting with namaste, you might bow and say namaste in return, but again, keep in mind what it really means, and don't feel like you have to say anything you're not comfortable with.
What does "namaste" mean spiritually?
Namaste is a Sanskrit phrase that's actually two words, with namah translating to terms like "praise," "honor," "bowing," "reverential salutation," and "adoration," and te, meaning "to you." So put it together and namaste means, "Praise to you," "Salutations to you," "Honor to you," or, "[I] bow to you."
Why do we say "namaste" after yoga?
Namaste is often said at the end of yoga classes because Euro-American yoga culture has lost the semantic meaning of the Sanskrit phrase and adopted an exaggerated meaning of "the light in me sees the light in you," which has no basis in Sanskrit language or Indian culture.
You're likely still going to hear namaste at your next yoga class if you live in the West, but that doesn't mean you have to say it. Any time you take part in traditions, rituals, or practices from a culture other than yours, it's essential to do so with respect. That starts with understanding the roots of what you're doing—and yoga is no exception.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.