What Does Namaste Really Mean?
Here's why yoga class ends with everyone repeating this Sanskrit word, and how the principles behind it can enhance your life on and off the mat.
If you’ve ever taken yoga, then you know the two things that happen at the end of class. First, everyone does Savasana, aka the corpse pose, when you lie on your back in total relaxation. Once the class is sitting up again, you put your hands together at your heart or in front of your “third eye” (the center of your forehead between your eyes), bow, and say “Namaste.”
Saying Namaste at the conclusion of class is such a ritual, you may never have actually stopped to think about what that word really means— how it can shape your yoga practice, if not other aspects of your life. Here’s the deeper definition to Namaste that every yogi needs to know.
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The definition of Namaste
Namaste’s literal translation in Sanskrit is "Nama" (to bow), "As" (I), and "Te" (you). Put it all together, and it means “I bow to you,” explains Liza Pitsirilos, yoga and fitness instructor at Longevity Center + Spa in Miami. Bowing forward as you say it underscores the depth and sincerity behind the term. “When you do this, you’re surrendering your head to your heart,” she explains.
Even though it’s just three short syllables, repeating Namaste is a crucial part of practicing yoga because it helps you take a step back and become more centered and present, which is what yoga is about. “We have such an active lifestyle focused on logic, reason, and problem-solving that it’s helpful to calm down an active mind by getting focused, so you’re not just jumping from thought to thought,” says Pitsirilos.
Not only does it help you dial back some of the crazy in life, but Namaste reminds you to acknowledge fellow students in class as well as the instructor. “In India, Namaste is also a greeting,” says Elisabeth Halfpapp, executive vice president of mind body programming at .
When you use Namaste as a way to say hello or goodbye, you’re making an effort to actively connect to others. Sure, part of the reason you're at yoga class might be because the flows and poses help you challenge yourself and reach your fitness goals. Repeating Namaste, however, is a reminder that you and the people on the mats next to yours are all in this class, and this world, together and for a deeper purpose.
Saying Namaste and reflecting on its meaning also helps you learn a little about yourself—what your heart wants, what you really feel, and what direction you want to take in life. “We’re a society that today is in our heads, rather than coming from our heart," says Halfpapp. "When I teach, I instruct my students to make decisions from their heart and core, which are better known as your gut feeling."
Halfpapp also notes that Namaste can remind you to reflect on your gratitude and look at the bigger picture, in spite of whatever crappy things life might be flinging your way in the moment.
How to practice Namaste in yoga class
If all of this sounds like a tall order—the dialing back, acknowledging others, keeping yourself in the present—that’s because we’re not really wired that way. It takes practice, which is why Namaste is recited at the very end of class. “You come out of Savasana with your mind more open and your body relaxed, and it’s at this point we’re more receptive to an exchange of Namaste,” explains Enilse Sehuanes-Urbaniak, yoga instructor at in St. George, Utah.
Yet the more you practice and recognize the true meaning behind Namaste, the easier it will be to tap into that inner calm when you need it most. Exercising the mind is just like exercising the body: you build that muscle memory over time.
Because it’s so important, you should try your best to stay for the full class. Maybe you’re trying to beat the traffic or are already running late to meet friends for dinner, so you skip Savasana and Namaste. But rushing to your next appointment is completely contrary to the meaning behind Namaste. “There’s a saying that your class is only as good as your Savasana,” says Halfpapp. “That’s when your nervous system calms down and you absorb everything you did in class,” she says.
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Next time you've got a class scheduled, stay through the end—and If you truly have to leave early, let your instructor know. Then take two minutes before you need to take off, come out of whatever pose you’re in and take a Savasana. You can say Namaste if you’d like, or just keep it in mind as you leave. If you think that sounds a little out there, we hear you. But give it a try, and you'll likely see how it makes a difference in how much more centered you feel.
How to live the principles of Namaste
Namaste can help change how you carry yourself in everyday situations. “Namaste creates a deep union of our spirits together in class. That’s the collective experience of the word,” says Pitsirilos. Think of it as a moment of inner peace, which can ripple outward and surprise you by dissolving tension or conflict in other areas of your life.
“Namaste is sending messages of peace to the universe," adds Halfpapp. It’s all about the positive energy you've created with Namaste. Friends, family members, and even coworkers can “catch” your sense of gratitude. If you have a hard time believing that this happens, consider how easy it is to feel down after hanging out with a friend who’s attitude is totally negative. Moods really are contagious.
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Namaste can enhance your relationships too. Remember that saying “I bow to you,” or Namaste, essentially tells someone that you’re really seeing them as the person they are. And that extra attention can make them feel special. “The next time you meet someone, I encourage you to do so wholeheartedly. Take a moment to look the person in the eye and really be conscious to see the person past the physical,” suggests Pitsirilos.
It’s completely different from saying "hey" to a coworker and going about your day or “talking” to a friend while checking your phone. You’re there with them in the moment, and not anywhere else. “The ultimate gift we can give each other is our full presence,” says Pitsirilos.