How often have you heard this word, Namaste, in a western yoga class? It is practically ubiquitous. What does it really mean though? And is its use appropriate?
Like many things that get adopted across cultures and across languages, strange things happen. Let's break open some myths.
Aw! that's nice isn't it.
But it isn't true! No, it isn't.
The word is derived from Sanskrit, namaḥ - reverence + te - you, singular familiar.
It therefore means, "reverence to you", where you are my close familiar friend, or a small child or someone else of low status compared to me. And it will also mean, there is only one of "you".
In Sanskrit, that is what it means.
However the word has come into Hindi and in Hindi it simply means hello.
Well that kind of depends on whether you think you are speaking in Sanskrit, the language of yoga, or in Hindi.
If you think you are speaking Hindi, fine. You are just using a generic word for "hello".
But in the language of yoga, Sanskrit, no, the teacher cannot address the class with namaste, unless only one person turned up today, and we hope that doesn't happen too often.
That's because it is singular! and if you simultaneously address a whole bunch of people, then you must do it in the plural form.
Well I am not sure this is a myth, because Myths 1 and 2 are so prevalent, nobody would get as far as even dreaming up Myth 3, but once you have got your head around those two myths you might soon come up with this one, so here it is:
You would think so wouldn't you. There is one of me, one of her. Singular.
But, strictly speaking, in Sanskrit the singular you is a familiar form and you would not use it for someone who you really respected, someone older than you, or someone you don't know very well. You would still use the plural, or respectful form.
So I guess, if you have no respect for your teacher and want to let her know, sure, say namaste. Otherwise, say namovaḥ.
(Author: Tina Shettigara)