Mind & Body

What does namaste mean?


We enlist the help of yogi Christian Ralston to help us uncover what the sanskrit for our favourite yoga poses means.

Taking your first yoga class can be a daunting experience. It can be A LOT. I can remember my first experience very well. In reality, it all started before I even got there. What kind of mat should I get? What should I wear? Do I need a prop? Do I need a towel? Once all that was sorted and I actually arrived there was the choice of where to put the mat. Front, back, left right, center? Aaaargh.

Every element of my first class seemed difficult. Granted I was coming in super green. I had years of playing rugby league and going to the gym under my belt, so my body (and mind) were a prime candidate for some yoga.

The physicality of yoga can be deceiving. If you were to view photos of common poses you’d be thinking ‘I’ve got this, this doesn’t look too difficult’. As most people find out looks can be very deceiving. Even the basic poses are going to seem like hard work at first.

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On top of the physical challenge there can be a language barrier. I was caught off guard by this. No one mentioned this in any ‘what to expect’ pieces I had read. Here’s me in class struggling, sweating and I can clearly remember thinking WTF is this person (the teacher) trying to say. I don’t know half of these words. I discovered a lot of teachers will call pose names using their traditional names which happens to be in another language.

Despite the initial challenge of getting myself organised, accepting my below standard physical ability and the language barrier, I noticed I’d always finish class feeling absolutely great. I saw this as a good sign to keep going. I kept going and going and going and going. From my difficult beginnings, I’ve now been teaching yoga for 7 years and loving it.

The language used in yoga classes is an ancient Indian language called Sanskrit. Every pose has its own name sometimes four or five words long. One of the most well-known words to fully crossover from the yoga world to the mainstream is ‘Namaste’.

The word Namaste itself is actually made up of two different words. ‘Nama’ means bow and ‘ste’ means ‘to you’. So Namaste quite literally means ‘I bow to you’.

Namaste is traditionally used as a greeting but it’s slightly more formal and has more reverence than a simple ‘how you going?’, it’s a greeting with used as a sign of respect especially to an elder person. To give the words added reverence it’s often accompanied by hands in prayer position and a slight bow of the head to the other person.

In a yoga class you will most likely hear Namaste at the end of class. Since Namaste is a greeting, this can be quite a head scratcher for most people of India. It does have its place though.

When you hear Namaste at the end of the yoga class, the teacher is saying ‘I bow to you’. It’s an acknowledgement and a sign of respect from them that they understand the class can be a challenge and good on you for organising yourself to be there. It’s an acknowledgement that getting yourself to class is probably the most significant step you can take in improving your physical, mental and emotional health. A step that’s going to benefit you and everybody else who knows you too. It deserves a bow.

The Namaste from a teacher is usually also accompanied by a response from the class too, acknowledging them and their efforts.

Other Sanskrit words that you will hear a lot in a yoga class are Savasana, a western name for ‘corpse pose’. This is when you lay out with your hands by your sides and your feet at hips distance apart and relaxed at the end of class and letting the magic of your practice integrate.

‘Adho Mukha Svanasana’ is ‘downward dog’, this is the classic pose where your hands are on the floor and your butt sticks in the air whilst you get a great hamstring stretch.

5 tips for starting out in yoga

  • Plan to do two or three days a week for a month to give it time to work.
  • Try out different teachers. Some may use English names for poses which can be helpful when you are starting out
  • Find a spot in the back half of the room so you can see everyone else, ideally next to somebody who looks like they know what they are doing. This can be daunting if they are much better than you, but you will also learn much quicker with a good example of how it should be done next to you
  • Get the gear! Invest in a good quality yoga mat, this doesn’t need to be anything fancy, just durable. My go-to is the BAHE Essential Mat in Regular, it’s great for new yogis or those who prefer a gentle occasional practice to build confidence from the ground up.
  • Don’t take it too seriously 🙂

Christian Ralston is a Sydney based Yoga, Mixed Movement and Health Coach. He is also an expert for BAHE Yoga. Christian teaches thoughtful and challenging yoga classes that draw on his personal experience over the years of regaining movement in a tight and injured body.