Mispronounced & Misused: It's Time We Get Clear on "Namaste"
Updated: Sep 13, 2021
This conversation has been happening in the media for years, but for many of us, this is new. Namaste is mostly used incorrectly, and it's making South Asian people's "skin crawl."
Even more embarrassingly, our pronunciation is horrible. How did we get it so wrong?
I've been weening this word out of my classes for years, but I haven't been talking about it explicitly. I have been trying to teach by example. But my class participants are so accustomed to saying Namaste, they say it to me whether I want to or not. It's past time I stepped up and spread the news.
Why did it take me so long?
I have a lot of South Asian people land in my classes on a regular, and several of them tell me they really love hearing it at the beginning and ending of class. They say it's "lovely."
I didn't realize many people actually find it totally weird and distracting
I didn't realize how many people actually find it totally offensive and harmful
I was attached to what I thought it meant. The idea of honoring the divine in all beings as a way of opening up a sacred space for the yoga work, and then closing the sacred space with the same message so we can take it forward into the world--that's what I thought I was doing. Now I realize I can still do that -- but the word Namaste is not the right way to do it.
Namaste is Offensive?
As an overview, I'll list some views I have heard: We're saying it wrong, at the wrong time. It's silly and ignorant of us. It's offensive. It's cultural misappropriation. It's colonizing, whitewashing. It perpetuates white supremacy. It creates racist riffs. It exoticizes Indian people. It broadcasts yourself as a fake spiritual person. It creates a power dynamic in which you are the teacher and you are condescending to lesser beings. And of course, printing it on yoga gear and making puns like "Namaste-in-bed" is definitely offensive.
Quite a wakeup call. Let me send this out into the universe: If I have ever harmed or offended you by making mistakes with the word, Namaste, I am truly sorry. I know better, now.
How did this happen?
The message that Namaste is good to say before and after yoga is everywhere, and sometimes the message comes from "good" sources.
For a teacher and student, Namaste allows two individuals to come together energetically to a place of connection and timelessness, free from the bonds of ego-connection. In yoga class, Namaste should ideally be done at the beginning and end of class. But Namaste needs no occasion. It can be performed anywhere, anytime, anyplace, without ritual or preconditions. It is an instinctive, unconditional thanksgiving to creation.
---The Healing Power of Mudras, by Rajendar Menen
Yoga Journal has an article with Aadil Palkhivala's expert stamp on it defining Namaste this way:
Nama means bow, as means I, and te means you. Therefore, namaste literally means “bow me you” or “I bow to you.”
Aadil Palkhivala's wife, Savitri says on her blog:
Namasté: I honor, respect, recognize and bow to the Light in me and you.
Savitri even closes her blog post with Namasté!
Deepak Chopra's website features a contributing author who wrote a deeply heartfelt article:
By saying namasté (and meaning it), you are saying that you see others for what you actually are. It’s an affirmation of the choice to identify with God-consciousness, rather than the ego.
I was not able to find anything with Deepak Chopra himself taking a stance on this debate. (If you find it, email it to me!)
This all sounds so wonderful and true, but others have other views.
One day a few years ago I heard someone from India say that Namaste just means "hello" and it's totally weird that people are saying it at the end of a yoga class. This freaked me out! I've been going around saying "hello" all the time!? Since the 90s!?
I started asking my students of South Asian heritage--many of whom grew up in India-- what they thought. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, several people who were raised in India told me they think it's lovely to say Namaste and the beginning and ending of class. They affirmed my understanding --at that time--of the meaning of the word. Yet others laughed at me in a good-natured way and said the word really does just mean "hello." They said it's fine to keep using it if I want to. (I don't want to if it's wrong.) (And they did laugh. That means something!)
Kumari Devarajan writes in NPR's Code Switch:
namaste literally means "greetings to you." In the Vedas, namaste mostly occurs as a salutation to a divinity. [not a person]
A lot of words we use today have religious roots, but just like "adios," "inshallah" or "goodbye" (an abbreviation of "God be with ye"), it doesn't have to be that deep.
Susanna Barkataki, author of Embrace Yoga's Roots, wrote a lovely blog post exploring the use of Namaste, and suggesting 60+ alternatives. One of her points is:
In my own personal experience living in India or with my elders and family here in the U.S., "Namaste" or "Namaskar" is said when I meet and greet an elder. Not when I leave. It honestly feels rather formal.
Several other points in her blog post deeply saddened me. This one really blew me away:
I notice that it's become a signifier, a glamorizing of Eastern culture. To use "Namaste" telegraphs our positionality as a teacher. Something like using the exoticism of a foreign word connotes "I, the wise yoga teacher, am now importing some wisdom to you."
This just made my stomach churn. I thought I was honoring the roots of yoga by incorporating Namaste and other Sanskrit words into my classes. But I may have been doing harms. Barkataki does encourage the use of Sanskrit to honor yoga's roots---but properly and with proper pronunciation.
Again from Devarajan in Code Switch:
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. It helps that the word namaste comes from a language that is unfamiliar to many of the teachers and practitioners of yoga in the U.S. It's much easier to exaggerate the meaning of a word that sounds foreign.
It gets worse. Devarajan goes on to write about how saying Namaste to people perpetuates unhealthy power dynamics in a white supremacist culture. (I highly recommend this article.)
One of the things that really brought things home to me was hearing from South Asian people about how they were bullied and assaulted in white spaces. They have been corrected on their pronunciation of Hindu words by non-Hindus, even had the pronunciation of their own names corrected in yoga spaces. 😢 Tejal Patel and Jasal Parikh shared some of these stories in their Yoga is Dead Podcast. They are doing great work to help educate about the differences between cultural appreciation and misappropriation.
A friend of mine recalls this weird shift that happened. After being bullied and assailed with racial epithets her whole life, suddenly yoga became cool and mainstream--and then it was suddenly cool to be South Asian. At first she was happy to finally feel "seen." But then the implications sickened her. Why was she not ok before, but cool now? Straight up racism.
I am going to continue to ritually open and close my classes with messages of recognizing the divinity in all beings. I just won't use the word Namaste to do it. I will continue to examine my behaviors to ensure that I am truly appreciating, not misappropriating Yoga and Indian Culture.
As I wrap this up, I want to mention pronunciation of Namaste. Rina Desphande teaches how to say it properly here.
To understand just how bad and idiotic we've been sounding, I highly recommend a clip by comedian, Akaash Sing. (Warning, he uses very bad language. But he really makes the point!) Watch here.
I have already linked to several sources throughout this post, but I have a few more.
Ending Yoga Classes with Namaste by Yoga Spy
Doing Away with Namaste by Allyson Whipple for Shut Up and Yoga
Please STOP Saying "Namaste B****" by Aumkar
Let's Talk About Namaste... (and how it's time to #NamaStop by nadia gilani
Susan Barkataki and Rina Desphande talk about Namaste