I remember my first trip to India well. By some sort of serendipitous magic, I met a young man named Siddhant from India on a flight to Denver, Colorado, and two months later I was invited to his cousin’s wedding in Jaipur that coming January. He knew I was already headed to India as a part of fulfilling my heart’s deep desire to further my study of yoga and see the wonderfully devotional, colorful and chaotic far away land I had dreamed of since I was young. It worked out perfectly, then, that he was going back to Jaipur during that same time for the wedding, and his family welcomed me with open arms and hearts.
Because I have been practicing yoga for almost a decade, I am very familiar with the word Namaste and its meaning in the Western World. Namaste is a spiritual word accompanied by a gesture that is enacted usually at the end of asana class, although it is also commonly used in meditation circles as well. Broken down in Sanskrit, Nama means bow, as means I, and te means you. “I bow to you.” To take it further, the essence of the word extends to the divinity within all of us. By bringing your hands together at the center of your heart, bowing your head and closing the eyes, you are surrendering to the beauty inside you and all sentient beings.
At the end of a yoga class, a teacher will often lead the group in saying this sacred word and bowing to them. The class, in turn, also says, “Namaste,” and bows to the teacher. This is to show the reciprocity between teacher and student, student and teacher. Without the teacher, the student has no one to learn from. Without the student, neither does the teacher. It goes hand and hand and the act of “Namaste” further demonstrates the honor shared between everyone. “I bow to the divine in you that also lives inside of me.”
Before I arrived in India, however, I wasn’t exactly sure if Namaste was used in the same way there as it was in the West. What I learned very quickly upon my arrival in Jaipur and meeting Sid’s family was that Namaste was not used the same way in India as it is the West. The quintessence of the word, however, was the same.
In India and Nepal, Namaste is a respectful greeting and valediction. A reflection of Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and other South Asian customs, when saying Namaste, the hands also perform Anjali Mudra (hands pressed together at the center of the heart) with a slight bow of the head. Sometimes Namaskar is used in place of Namaste as they are interchangeable terms. In addition, these words can be used as an expression of gratitude and to welcome a stranger.
The wedding preparations were almost a week long and every day, multiple times a day, I bowed my head, my hands in prayer at my heart, and said Namaste to all of Sid’s family. No physical asana was involved; it was just a part of daily life. How incredible it is to honor each other every time you meet and depart; how auspicious of a way to walk through the world.
Living in Thailand, we do not say the word Namaste, but we do bow our heads and place our hands in prayer. In Thai it is called the wai and its origins are that of the India Anjali Mudra. The wai is used as a greeting or farewell, and can even be used as an expression of gratitude or an apology. Traditionally, the wai is used upon entering someone’s house and then as a way of asking for permission to leave. However, every day I wai to the woman selling vegetables at the market, the waiter bringing me my soup or a friend passing by on their motorbike.
To me, living in and visiting places in which this type of gesture is a part of the everyday culture is a gift and a constant reminder of the value each of us bring to the communities we live in and the world we all inhabit.
**Photo taken of me in the Mother Ganga on my first trip to India!