I brought everyone out of savasana. Bowing to the participants, I said, “Thank you for coming. Please feel free to stick around and chat if you have questions, or want to go over something in more detail.” Everyone smiled, but I could sense mild confusion in the room. I knew why: People were waiting for me to conclude with the familiar “Namaste” before they got off their mats to leave.
I’ve been practicing yoga since 2007 and enrolled in my first teacher training in 2017. I consider the first decade of practice my exploratory phase. Focused almost entirely on asana, I bounced around from class to class, style to style. I wasn’t consistent with anything. Things began to shift around 2014 when I got divorced; while I still focused on asana, that time of emotional tumult led me toward meditation and philosophy.
I never planned on teaching yoga, and in fact, I resisted for a long time. Then one day, I ended up teaching a class by accident. I’d come as a student, the teacher didn’t show up, and I figured I could probably lead a passable 60 minutes. That passable 60 minutes turned into an 18-month search to find the right training program.
One of the things that intrigued me about the program I ended up choosing was the emphasis on mantra japa, the practice of repeating a Sanskrit mantra, keeping track of your repetitions with mala beads. While I’d been introduced to a few mantras, I’d never been taught to use them as a sustained practice. Admittedly, my first few months of mantra japa did not go smoothly. I felt frustrated by sitting and saying a mantra to myself a few hundred times, and only after a few months did I begin to find mantra japa calming. Over time, I began to love meditating on sound. Within a year, mantra japa had become the driving force of my personal practice.
Trying and Failing
As I moved further down the paths of philosophy and meditation, I found myself forced to reckon with what it means to be a white woman practitioner, and the extent to which I’ve been complicit in acts of appropriation rather than appreciation.
The discussion of appropriation in yoga is a huge topic, and, as a writing teacher by trade, I’ve been most interested in approaching the issue through the lens of language. I worry about the ways in which different kinds of rhetoric make their way into yoga in the US: marketing, wellness, fitness, and prosperity gospel, among others. I think a great deal about the inevitable failures of translation between Sanskrit and English. One of my biggest concerns has been whether I’m using Sanskrit in the right way at the right time. Ultimately, this meant confronting my use of possibly the most common Sanskrit term in western yoga: Namaste.
The first time I tried to phase Namaste out of my teaching vocabulary was about a year and a half ago. I was teaching at a hot/power studio, and at a staff meeting, we had a discussion about what did and did not count as cultural appropriation. Some teachers felt that using Sanskrit was a type of appropriation. They thought we should all stop ending class with Namaste because it was a Sanskrit term. Other teachers echoed a sentiment I’d heard elsewhere: Sanskrit was intimidating to our students and would alienate them from practice. I disagreed; I felt then, as I still do, that using Sanskrit in class is a way of honoring yoga and its Indian heritage. I advocated for using English words alongside Sanskrit. That way, we could honor the tradition without intimidating students. I was raised by a librarian and a lawyer, and I’ve been a poet since the age of twelve. I’ve gone my entire life believing that words matter. As an extension of that belief, I considered it essential to use the language of yoga in my teaching, even if that was limited to the names of poses.
A few weeks after that discussion, I was listening to an episode of J. Brown’s Yoga Talks podcast, in which he discussed concerns surrounding cultural appropriation, chanting, and use of the word Namaste. I learned that Namaste was not an appropriate term to use at the end of a class: it is a greeting, not a message of conclusion or parting. J. talked about how a pair of Indian women who attended his class were upset by his inappropriate use of the term. As a result of that podcast, I decided that, while I still believed in using Sanskrit while teaching, I would stop ending class with Namaste. To continue using that term incorrectly, I reasoned, was a form of appropriation.
I thought that by simply ringing a bell, I could signify the end of class in a clear way. However, students were so conditioned to wait for Namaste that my bell attempt caused substantial confusion. I only stuck with my newfound resolve for about three weeks, and instead defaulted to my old habit. I partially feared alienating students, because I assumed that since I felt uncomfortable with the confusion, they must have felt uncomfortable as well. The last thing I wanted was to create a sense of unease at the end of class. I also missed the convenience of having one simple word to wrap up class.
A few months later, at another studio staff meeting, the owner brought up another issue related to the language of yoga. She mentioned that a new teacher, who was not in attendance at the meeting, had started class by having everyone chant Om. The owner said to the group, “I don’t want to hear Om or any other form of chanting coming from anyone’s classes here.” We were “not that kind” of studio, she said. Her argument was that we only taught the physical practice, without any invocation or chanting, because the spiritual side of the practice was alienating to people. Students were coming to sweat and stretch, not to pray. But we could still end class with Namaste, as that was the way students would know it was time to go home.
I returned from the meeting shaken and upset. While, at that point, I wasn’t chanting in class, prayer and mantra had become indelible parts of my personal practice. Avoiding them completely in the classroom was beginning to feel like spiritual and intellectual dishonesty. I did not believe that one could divorce the physical aspect from the spiritual and philosophical aspects and still honor the tradition of yoga. I did not believe we had any right to call what we were doing yoga if it was simply a chance to sweat with some watered-down discussion about mindfulness at the start of class. And to forbid Om but allow for Namaste felt like ignorance at best, and hypocrisy at worst.
Linguistic Appropriation and Violence
I think mantra japa resonated with me so strongly because, as a writer, I felt inspired by the idea that we could use words to transform consciousness. I was intrigued by the idea that a Sanskrit word was not representational, but was the thing itself. For example, the word car has a specific representation associated with it. While there are many styles of cars in the world, those who understand English can recall a fairly standard symbol of one. While we know that the word emerged from Latin and Middle English, its meaning does not depend on the nature of cars themselves. It’s possible to imagine an alternate universe where the word car never appears in the lexicon. The word car is not a car into itself; rather, it has a specific physical referent.
This is not to say Sanskrit never evolved. Vedic Sanskrit emerged as early as 1700 BCE. Classical Sanskrit, the form which appears in most yoga traditions, didn’t emerge until 500 BCE, when it was standardized in the Aṣṭādhyāyī of Pāṇini. What remained consistent, though, was that Sanskrit terms didn’t represent objects; rather, they were concepts unto themselves. For example, the word śāntiḥ (peace), however, is śāntiḥ itself. It doesn’t represent anything; it is that which it claims to be.
As a poet, I loved the idea that word was something rather than just representing something. In addition, my years of literary study allowed me to recognize that this difference in representational versus actual meaning raised additional challenges regarding translation. For example, a translator working between English and Spanish (both representational languages) often has to take liberties with grammar, syntax, or vocabulary to create a translation that is faithful to the original from both a technical and aesthetic standpoint. It’s easy to see the complications that arise from trying to translate a language that is not representational into a language that is representational. If śāntiḥ is śāntiḥ, then how can you really translate that which is already itself? I began to feel that relying only on translations of texts meant that I was hindering my own understanding of yoga. As a result, using Sanskrit as part of my practice and teaching became all the more important. To close myself off from language was to close myself off from the kind of practice I was seeking.
As I returned to the studio to teach the next day, I knew my days were numbered. I didn’t feel right about teaching at a place where certain terms were forbidden not out of concern over appropriation, but out of concern that being too spiritual would turn students off. I couldn’t see this policy as anything but appropriation, and I wanted no part in it.
Think of all the Indigenous languages which have been compromised, diminished, or gone extinct due to colonialism, war, and other facets of political violence. I don’t mean that this studio owner was plotting to commit full-out linguicide. I don’t believe that practitioners who avoid Sanskrit have malicious intentions. There are a number of reasons why people might be reluctant to learn the language. When I first started practicing, I was definitely intimidated by a language written in an alphabet that bore zero resemblance to English. Pronunciation is also a challenge; there are sounds in Sanskrit that simply don’t exist in English. I didn’t get serious about Sanskrit until I was 35; it’s not easy trying to teach your mouth to form shapes that it has never tried. Most of thet time, when I practice pronunciation, I feel like I’m just making a verbal mess. Others avoid Sanskrit because, as I mentioned earlier, they’re concerned that doing so would be appropriation rather than appreciation.
Yet we have to consider that, in avoiding Sanskrit, we may be taking steps toward full-blown linguicide. While Sanskrit is technically a dead language in the sense that there are virtually no native speakers (with the exception of a small village in the state of Karnataka), it clearly still holds value to many contemporary practitioners. The earliest known forms of Sanskrit emerged in the beginning of the Vedic period, around 1500 BCE. During this period, practitioners considered aural transmission more valuable than writing. Vedic verses were passed down through family lineages, involving not just recitation, but movement, hand gestures, and breathwork.
While the world we live in no longer resembles the Vedic period, there are still practicing yogis and Hindus, for whom Sanskrit is a non-negotiable aspect of practice. No matter what style we practice, we cannot ignore the fact that contemporary yoga emerged from a tradition in which the only way to really learn the teachings was to comprehend this ancient language. Not everyone has the resources to undertake an in-depth study of Sanskrit; that’s not the issue here. The outright rejection of Sanskrit under the rationale that it will turn away paying clients is an act of linguistic violence.
Down the Linguistic Rabbit Hole
A few weeks after the meeting, I left the studio, over the language issue and a host of other concerns. While I felt clear on my position regarding Sanskrit and chanting, I still felt troubled regarding my use of Namaste. Certainly, if banning Om was hypocrisy, using Namaste incorrectly wasn’t really any better. Yet I was still afraid to move in the direction I felt was right.
In January of 2019, I took Seth Powell’s Sanskrit 101 course. In one of the live sessions, a student asked about the use of Namaste at the end of class. Seth gave an insightful discussion as to whether yoga teachers in the US should use the term to conclude class and affirmed that Namaste is a greeting. Not only that, but it’s a very formal greeting. Most contemporary yoga spaces in the US are casual environments. I used to study kung fu, and formality was part of the training. Everyone wore a uniform. We addressed each other using “Ma’am,” “Sir,” and other formal honorifics. There was a strict standard of etiquette. Compared to that, there’s virtually no formality in the majority of yoga spaces I’ve been in, especially in the past five years. Using a greeting as formal as Namaste strikes me as inappropriate, especially when it’s being used incorrectly.
That class session also helped me understand why I gave up on my first attempt at avoiding Namaste. Seth pointed out that yoga teachers are basically expected to end class that way. Right or wrong, nearly every teacher I’ve taken a class with concluded with Namaste; so did my colleagues’ teachers. We don’t know any other way to end a practice. If we want to break the habit, we’re going to have to make a concerted effort to reflect, change our approaches, and educate others.
After that class session, I finally felt a sense of clarity. The Sanskrit language is important to me. Mantra and prayer in Sanskrit are essential components of my practice. Not every practitioner will resonate with mantra japa, and indeed, the yoga tradition has so many different kinds of practices that no individual can reasonably focus on all of them. Mantra and Sanskrit, though, are still indelible aspects of yoga as a whole, and certainly worth learning about, even if not everyone adopts them in personal practice. For example, many instructors would benefit from learning the proper Sanskrit pronunciation of common asanas in their training programs. As a teacher, I think it’s important to use the language of yoga in class alongside English. However, if I’m going to use it, I need to use it correctly. If I learn that I’m not using Sanskrit correctly, I need to change.
Because Namaste is a formal greeting, not a sign-off for the end of a casual class, I needed to stop. As of this January, I’ve finally kicked the Namaste habit.
Making the Change for Good
While I haven’t ended a class on Namaste in seven months, that doesn’t mean it was easier the second time around. For the first two months, I had to re-establish my commitment in every class to avoid falling back on the habit. I returned to my earlier practice of ending class with ringing a bell and thanking the students. I avoided awkwardness by using my decision as an opportunity to educate people. I started saying at the start of class that I was no longer using Namaste and explaining how class would end instead. I also invited them to talk to me after class if they wanted to know more. I didn’t have to go into a diatribe; I just let people know what to expect, and let them decide if they wanted to follow up.
Nobody ever asked me to explain why I no longer said Namaste. Nor did anyone seem upset by my change of protocol. In fact, it seemed that I was the only one uneasy with my decision. Even though I felt I was doing the right thing, I no longer had the familiar crutch of Namaste to lean on. Using the word really was an ingrained habit, and I actually felt that my teaching was somehow lacking without it. I had to sit with that discomfort for weeks before it finally abated.
Some of that discomfort didn’t even have to do with how I ended class. As I practiced not ending class with Namaste, I began to question the rest of my practice. Certainly, the word Namaste wasn’t the only thing I had accepted uncritically. Did I understand why I was chanting Om three times at the start of practice, or did I chant Om because that was what most of my teachers did? If asana had ostensibly become a lower practice priority, why was I still spending so much time on postures? What were all the other ways I was complicit in cultural appropriation? And, given the inevitable failures of translation, was there even a point to practicing and studying if I didn’t yet know Sanskrit well enough to read the old texts myself?
As one question spiraled into the next, my discomfort increased. However, these were necessary questions to work through. When I stopped chanting Om for a while, I learned that the resonance of the sound in my voice and body was deeply important to me. I had chosen to make yoga a spiritual practice, so opening by invoking the sacred was a necessary component of my morning ritual. I spent a lot of time on asana because it was the best way for me to transition from a foggy morning mind to a mind ready to meditate. My concentration was better after I’d had movement and pranayama to wake myself up. Yes, I came up with a laundry list of ways in which I had contributed to appropriation, so it was time to learn from my mistakes and do better. And I didn’t have to walk away from yoga just because I only had a rudimentary knowledge of Sanskrit; I could make language study another component of my personal practice.
As a result of my linguistic inquiries, I’ve even stopped saying Namaste when I’m in the role of a student. At the end of any class I’m attending, instead of saying Namaste, I bow in silence. I respect and appreciate the teachers I work with; I value the time I spend in their classes. I also choose to no longer engage in a habit that conflicts with my understanding of Sanskrit and yoga.
This is not to denigrate my teachers or colleagues who are still using Namaste. Not everyone is going to agree with my decision. But if you’re a teacher using the greeting at the end of class, I invite you to at least evaluate that choice. Even if you decide you’d rather continue to do so, please at least think about why you’ve made that choice. Our students deserve better than classes constructed out of rote habit.
Edited by Ely Bakouche