Do I have to say Namaste?
The short answer is no.
In my classes I usually end with everyone rising from savasana (corpse pose), our final resting pose of an asana practice, taking three breaths together to further calm the body, and saying the Sanskrit greeting, “Namaste.” If I have new students in classes, I say, “Namaste is an expression meaning ‘The Divine in me honors the Divine in you.’ Namaste.” The reason I explain the meaning of the word when I have new people in class is because not everyone knows the meaning, but many still say the word without knowing what it means. I think it’s important for people to know what they are saying so they can determine for themselves whether or not they want to return the greeting based on their own beliefs.
Perhaps you do not believe in a divine entity, or perhaps you don’t believe such an entity exists within human beings, perhaps you simply don’t care to show honor toward me. All of this is okay. I offer Namaste because I believe there is a divine nature within all beings, and because I honor that. Not everyone takes a yoga class to feel connected to the divine. Most people in class simply want to move and feel good. I have people in class from all different backgrounds of spiritual focus, some more interested in meditation while others are more interested in being fit and physically active.
Traditionally, “Namaste” is a greeting, but most yoga instructors, if they use the word at all, use it to close class. As I considered the possibility of using the mantra to begin class rather than to close, I thought about our final resting pose, Savasana. Savasana, or “corpse pose” is a pose in which students are invited into a deep rest and surrender. This final pose is like a death, and aptly named. Because of this, when we begin slowly to awaken from this “death” it is like we are starting the next moment in our day completely new. And so, being new, we are invited to greet our new state by acknowledging the divine, having taken on some of the attributes of the divine, like peace, strength, and perhaps even love. Our endorphins awakened, we feel, for the moment, a sense of unshakeable calm. Even if this is not our experience exactly, there is a sense of renewal rather than ending. So, when I say “Namaste” after those three calming breaths, I am greeting the renewed self as well as acknowledging and honoring the perfection, peace, love, the divine that I believe we are all containers for.
Defining the esoteric keeps our practice transparent and sincere. Not everyone arrives to a yoga class to experience the divine, and that’s okay. This isn’t church, and I won’t be offended if you don’t return the Namaste greeting, especially knowing what it means and not feeling connected with its meaning, but the opportunity is there for those who do have a spiritual leaning. That’s the beauty of the practice of yoga, I can feel free to express my spirituality without feeling offended by varying beliefs or lack of beliefs. I’m there to guide you safely through body movement, what you get out of the practice, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually is up to you. I just hope you always leave feeling good and at peace.