Your Full Guide To The Meaning of Namaste

Last Updated on October 4, 2021

Yoga class is over. The teacher standing at the front of the studio presses her hands together, smiles and utters “Namaste” to her students. This is how most people in the west are first introduced to the word, so one could be forgiven for thinking it’s just an official way to end a yoga or meditation session. But even the most confused individual can often sense the core nature of Namaste without ever needing to be told.

Namaste is a deeply respectful gesture.

The Roots of Namaste

The word “Namaste” is incredibly old. It can be traced back all the way to India’s Vedic period that dates from about 1500 to 800 BC. Born from the ancient language of Sanskrit, Namaste has been used for thousands of years to show respect for elders, teachers, and other honorables.

This sentiment echoes today in modern Indians, who were taught as children that Namaste is a well-mannered way to greet older people. For a while, they were surprised by the way the west put their own spin on Namaste. Besides using it as a greeting, the word is also used in yoga classes as a mantra or salutation. These days, Namaste has spread all over the world and is an integral part of the global yoga and spiritual scene.

Three Ways to Say Namaste

How Namaste is pronounced depends on where the speaker is from. Westerners are more familiar with saying “nahm-ahs-tay” while in Asia, the word is pronounced as “num-us-teh.” One can argue that the Asian version is the correct form, seeing that it’s the older pronunciation, but in truth, both ways of saying Namaste are acceptable.

The third way of saying Namaste is to say nothing at all. Some people prefer to perform the hand gesture (called Anjali Mudra) in total silence.

How to Perform Anjali Mudra

One easy way to describe Anjali Mudra is to liken it to “praying hands.” Indeed, with the fingers held straight and the palms pressed together, it does resemble the posture adopted by the praying saints in Christian art.

However, there are finer nuances that make Anjali Mudra different from hands that are held in prayer. When the Mudra is performed, the hands are pressed together, certainly, but they are also raised to the chest area at roughly the same level as the heart. The thumbs should lightly touch the sternum.

Why Is There A Hand Gesture At All?

Anjali Mudra is not just an empty gesture. Besides being a physical reflection of Namaste’s values, it is also said that Anjali Mudra is a way for the speaker to connect to their heart and to open this spiritual centre. This openness brings humility and groundedness to both the greeter and the person being honored.

Traditionally, the hand gesture has always been performed together with saying “Namaste.” That being said, nobody really takes offence when someone else greets them with a verbal “Namaste” only. That is the great thing about the Namaste phenomenon in general. If you don’t feel comfortable doing it (saying the word itself, performing Anjali Mudra or both) then you don’t have to.

The Many Meanings of Namaste

Namaste has a mercurial nature, changing its meaning slightly from east to west and from person to person. But at the heart of Namaste, many agree that saying “Namaste” and bowing with the Anjali Mudra hand gesture has a beautiful purpose. The speaker acknowledges that the sacred divine existing within themselves also exists in the other person.

On a more casual level, Namaste is like saying “hello” to someone but with an added level of respect. In India, especially, it is a polite way to initiate a conversation with loved ones and strangers alike. It can also be used to say goodbye.

At the end of the day, Namaste pays homage to another person or a group in a way that is far from empty and superficial. It is a display of affection, equality, and gratitude. This marks Namaste as a truly special human interaction, regardless of where it is spoken or how the word is pronounced.

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