Why don't I say 'Namaste'?
An excerpt from Nikesh Shukla's short story in 'The Good Immigrant':
Namaste means hello.
Namaste means I'm bowing to you.
It's a customary greeting.
It's a respectful salutation.
It has become a bastardised metaphor for spiritualism.
It's white people doing yoga, throwing up prayer hands chanting 'AUM' and saying 'namaste' like their third eyes are being opened and they can peer directly into the nucleus of spirituality.
You need to know this. Because of your skin tone, people will ask you where you're from. If you tell them Bristol, they'll ask where your parents are from. When they know you're half-Indian, one person will try to impress their knowldge of your culture onto you.
In most yoga classes I've attended the teacher would say namaste at the end of the class and we would repeat it. I didn't question it, but I did feel a little uncomfortable. I wondered if I really had permission to say this word at the end of the class. What did it really mean and why say it at the end of a class and not at the beginning? When I was learning to be a Spanish teacher we were given a lesson in Hindi as a demonstration of how to teach a language without using English. I remembered that we learned namaste as hello.
Namaste can also mean goodbye. But it is used quite formally, to greet or say goodbye with respect, and it is used with the hands together at the chest. Just like at the end of most yoga classes.
This word and gesture has morphed in yoga. We are not saying goodbye with respect. It is a signal that the class is over. It seems to be expected. As if it is not yoga if you don't say namaste at the end of your practice.
I've known for a while that namaste literally means 'bowing to you' but like with a lot of other instances in yoga, the mixing of cultural significance, back and forth from India to the West, it has been imbued with a deeper meaning. One of my teachers says at the end of class, "namaste- the divine in me bows and honours the divine in you". As a spiritual saying, this is beautiful and can be connective for groups of people, and some argue this is the original message of the greeting. I truly believe in the spaces that are created outside of our frenetic daily lives, that bring people to stillness and 'cultivate the heart', as another one of my teachers would say and so this message can be powerful. Yoga classes and retreats really do bring a sense of connection -to themselves and/or other people. Why else would they be so popular?
But I still get this niggling uncomfortable feeling. It is verging on cultural appropriation, or rather, at times it is and other times it is not. In her fantastic article, Rina Deshpande explains that "... many nonwhite cultures are still fractured or repairing themselves, facing continued prejudice in the present day. Rejecting cultural appropriation as a problem also rejects that many communities, often nonwhite ones, have been historically oppressed, colonized, and had their cultures ransacked for profit."
I feel like it shouldn't be up to anyone in the West to adapt the meaning of a word from a formerly colonised people to suit their spiritual needs, let alone mass-produce t-shirts and hoodies with the word as an embellishment. It's difficult to trace this hyper-spiritualised version of the word namaste as even Indians disagree as to the meaning. There are even varying opinions on whether it is appropriate to say in the context of a yoga class. Rina, a first generation Indian American, starts her article with a story about her saying namaste at the end of a class she was teaching. She also believes it is extremely powerful and beautiful.
Suranna Barkataki says she doesn't say it for a few reasons: "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." Or sometimes, when we want to signal "class is over, y'all can go" ... in so many spiritual-sounding words... it's an easy way to get you out the door."
It could be argued that namaste at the end of an exercise focused yoga class at a gym is completely out of context and therefore wrong, but at the end of a class with a teacher who incorporates more of the limbs of yoga, such as pranayama and dhyana, as well as philosophical themes, it is ok. I certainly aim to be the latter kind of teacher. But I will refrain from saying it at the end of classes I teach until something changes my mind -a conversation or experience- which I am open to. And I am open to receiving the good intent and love in the namaste of my teachers.
Nikesh Shukla, The Good Immigrant, 2016, Unbound, UK