The Significance of Namaste

What does “Namaste” mean? This is usually the final “formality” before the closure of a yoga class and I have always wanted to know more about the significance of the gesture.

The gesture (or mudra) of Namaste (anjali mudra) is a simple act made by bringing together both palms of the hands before the heart chakra, and lightly bowing the head. In the simplest of terms it is accepted as a humble greeting straight from the heart and reciprocated accordingly.

Namaste is a composite of the two Sanskrit words, nama, and te. Te means you, and nama has the following connotations:

  • To bend
  • To bow
  • To sink
  • To incline
  • To stoop

So “Namaste” literally means that “I bow down to you out of respect or reverence”. Namaste is the traditional greeting among the Hindus and is used both as “hello” and “good bye”. When two people meet, they greet each other by joining their hands in front of the heart, bow down their head and say Namaste. The extended meaning of Namaste is that the divinity in me salutes the divinity in you. We can only bow down to someone else when we recognize that the essence of the other person is divine. Also, in order to bow to someone else, we must be able to surrender our ego. When we do that we are ourselves closer to our own divinity. Hence the above extended meaning.

Translated into a bodily act, Namaste is deeply rich in symbolism. Firstly the proper performance of Namaste requires that we blend the five fingers of the left hand exactly with the fingers of the right hand. The significance behind this simple act in fact governs the entire gamut of our active life. The five fingers of the left hand represent the five senses of karma, and those of the right hand the five organs of knowledge. Hence it signifies that our karma or action must be in harmony, and governed by rightful knowledge, prompting us to think and act correctly.

Another significant identification of Namaste is with the institution of marriage, which represents a new beginning, and the conjoining of the male and female elements in nature. Marriage is a semi-divine state of wholeness – a union between the opposite principles of male and female necessary to create and protect new life. In the exhaustive marriage rituals of India, after the elaborate ceremonies have been completed, the new husband and wife team perform Namaste to each other. Wedding customs, full of symbolic meanings, attempt to ensure that marriages are binding, hence fruitful and happy. Namaste is one such binding symbolic ritual. The reconciliation, interaction and union of opposites are amply reflected in this spiritual gesture. It is hoped that the husband and wife team too would remain united, as are the hands joined in Namaste. By physically bringing together the two hands, Namaste is metaphorically reconciling the duality inherent in nature and of which the marriage of two humans is an earthly manifestation, a harmonious resolution of conflicting tensions. Thus Namaste, which symbolizes the secret of this unity, holds the key to maintaining the equilibrium of life and entering the area where health, harmony, peace and happiness are available in plenty.

At the end of each yoga class most teachers bring their hands together in front of the heart, bow their head and say “Namaste” and the students bring their hands together and respond in kind. Saying “Namaste” allows two individuals to come together energetically to a place of connection and timelessness, free from the bonds of ego-connection. If it is done with deep feeling in the heart and with the mind surrendered, a deep union of spirits can blossom. The joining together of the palms provides connection between the right and left hemispheres of the brain and represents unification or “yoking”. This yoking is symbolic of the practitioner’s connection with the divine in all things. Hence, performing Namaste or anjali mudra is an honouring of both the self and the other as the gesture acknowledges the divinity of both practitioner and recipient. The exchange of Namaste at the end of class is a wonderful way to honor the true self in each of us, and recognize that all life is interrelated.

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