Fitness Magazine

"Namaste" and the Anjali Mudra

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Nina

Photo by Sarit Z Rogers

Several of my yoga teachers throughout my many years of taking classes have ended their classes by instructing the class to take the Anjali mudra (or as some of them call it, “Bringing Your Hands Together in Namaste”) and say the word “namaste.” But I noticed that Donald Moyer and Richard Rosen never did this. Then I also noticed that YFHA staff member Ram Rao, who grew up in India, often signs off on his emails to me with “Namaste, Ram.” Naturally, although it was not exactly a burning question, this did make me wonder what the deal was with this “namaste” thing.

I also know that when this topic came up in the class I took for a while with Richard Rosen, Richard explained that the student can say “namaste” but it is incorrect for the teacher to do it. That’s because “namaste” is “singular “and should only be used for greeting a single person. Then he said what the teacher should say to greet a group of students, but I immediately forgot the word. And since he never used it himself, I never heard it again. But that discussion gave me the uncomfortable feeling that that there might be more to learn about the use of this word and that way of ending a yoga class. Fortunately, as I discovered last night, this is one of the very questions that Richard Rosen addresses in his book Yoga FAQ. So, I thought today I’d share what I learned about it from you. 

First of all, the word is a compound word that includes the word “namas,” which means to “bow to, salute reverentially, to adore” and the word “te,” which means “you” (in the singular form). Put together, these two words mean “I bow to you” or “I salute you.” Although Richard did not say this, I’ve also read that the “you” in this case is “real” you, not your body-mind but your atman or Self (pursa), which we have discussed in Spiritual Ignorance and Richard Rosen Clarifies the Meaning of Avidya. So that leads us to another translation of namaste as “the divine in me bows to the divine in you.” This is actually the translation that I originally learned back in the day so that’s what I’ve been thinking it meant all these years. 

That being said, I’ve also read that “namaste” is the most common way to say “hello” (kind of like “Salutations!”) in India and Nepal and is sometimes used to express deep gratitude as well. Hmm, I will have to ask Ram what he means when he ends his emails to me that way! And I guess it’s up to you to decide how to interpret what you’re saying when you say this to your yoga teacher or anyone else. 

I’ve also learned that many of us who pronounce the word as “nah-mah-stay” are mispronouncing it. The first two syllables should be pronounced more like "nuh" and "muh." Trip Advisor, which encourages you to use this word when greeting people in India and Nepal, says think of "num" to begin the word and "the rest will flow." Yeah, that works. And it fits with how Richard says to pronounce the salutation to a group.

According to Richard, to address a group of students (or even two students) correctly, the teacher should say, “namo vaha” which is pronounced “nuh-mo-vuy-huh.” Basically, this means “I bow to you all,” or “y’all” as they say in Texas, where my daughter lives.

Now about the hand position used along with this word. Richard says that is the Anjali mudra, which most people position in front of the sternum. But I’ve noticed that some students either don’t put their hands on the sternum and place them elsewhere or, more commonly, move from sternum to forehead to overhead. You might want to be careful with that! Richard says:

“For the teacher the hands are brought opposite the sternum, before the face for a respected elder, and above the head for a deity.”

By the way, I’ve also seen this hand position called Pranamasana (with the same word being used for the starting position of a Sun Salutation). Perhaps that is because when you’re saying “hello” to someone in India, although you include the hand gesture, you’re not really practicing a mudra. Or, perhaps this is just another name for namaste (something I see frequently with Sanskrit names for poses and such), which, it turns out, can be said as “namaskar.”

Unfortunately, Richard really only answered part of the question that was asked of him, which also left me still wondering. The question in the book actually was: “Why do we say “namaste” at the end of yoga class? What does it mean?” While Richard answered in some detail about the word and the hand gesture mean, he never said why it is often used at the end of yoga classes. So, at this point I still have no idea why many yoga teachers do this and who started it. Certainly not all schools of yoga do this. Jivana reports that in Integral Yoga classes they end class with "Jai Sri Satguru Maharaja Ki! Jai." And my friend Iyengar teacher Jarvis Chen, who has studied extensively in India, reports that they don't end classes in Pune that way, either. In fact, he says that at the end of the class, "Often Guruji would just say, 'That's enough for today." Yet in The Meaning of "Namaste" in Yoga Journal, Aadil Palkhivala, who was trained by Iyengar, discusses how to use the word and hand gesture at the beginning and end of a yoga class as a symbol of "gratitude and respect." For now, it's a mystery. If you know something about this, do tell!

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