I almost always end my movement classes with the word “Namaste.” About 15 years ago I briefly explored using different words or phrases. I wasn’t sure that using this salutation was culturally appropriate. From the beginning of my yoga teaching, I was aware of the fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation. I came to the conclusion that saying “Namaste” was a fine way to honor my teachers and their lineages and I became comfortable with that decision. However, I have never felt comfortable calling myself a ‘Yogi.’
Terminology seems to be a hot topic these days. Perhaps it always was but these days it feels like it has more of an edge to it.
I understand Yoga to be an umbrella term for a system of practices that originated on the Indian sub-continent. These practices have physical components that are often situated within religious and spiritual frameworks. Hindu, Buddhist and Jain practices incorporate many variations of Yoga.
I have studied some of these systems and greatly appreciate their wisdom. I share what I know about them with my students, but my knowledge of these systems does not make me a practitioner of them. For example, I will teach about the Yamas and Niyamas (ethical principles as outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras) and while they parallel many of the ethical practices that I strive to live up to, I don’t consider the Yamas and Niyamas to be the framework for how I live my life.
Today the term ‘yoga’ is commonly understood to be a series of physical practices based on postures and breathing techniques. Most of these practices are actually quite recent and come out of a confluence of ancient Yoga traditions, Indian nationalism, British Colonialism and Physical Cultural (a focus on the perfection of the body that was an outgrowth of European nationalism). I call these practices “Modern Postural Yoga.” A growing body of academic research is available on this topic. If you are interested in this topic, the work of Andrea Jain, Matthew Remski, and Mark Singleton are good places to start.
I consider a ‘Yogi’ to be someone who has dedicated their life to practicing a holistic system of Yoga. It’s a serious term that implies devotion and dedication to a long-standing tradition. In my opinion, practicing physical postures for health or using the physical practices to have an embodied experience does not make one a yogi. In India, even though many people practice variations of postures and breathing techniques derived from yoga, few call themselves ‘yogis.’
All this doesn’t mean that there aren’t modern day yogis. There are definitely people who have made yoga practices – and not just the physical ones—a central practice of their lives. I am just not one of them.
You may have noticed that my email address and website include the word ‘yoga.’ As I’ve mentioned above, I understand that it is a contested term with multiple meanings. In the context of my work, I use the term ‘yoga’ in reference to physical practices that have roots in the traditions of the Indian subcontinent. I also give a nod to its common translation as ‘union’ for one of my goals as a teacher is to support the cultivation of an integrated connection to the wholeness of one’s being.
So, if I have such a sensitivity about defining myself as a yogi, why do I say “Namaste” at the end of class?
Namaste literally means “I bow to you” or “bowing to you.” Some people interpret this to mean “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.” It is often said at the end of a movement class.
As an anthropologist I am well aware that language is constantly changing. While I don’t know how ‘Namaste’ was used in ancient times, I do know that it is used as a salutation for ending class in almost all the places where I have studied modern postural yoga in the United States and India.
Some people assert that using the term ‘Namaste’ is culturally appropriative. These include claims that the word is being used incorrectly or that it shouldn’t be said by someone for whom it’s not part of their culture. However, cultures are built on borrowing from one another other. I understand cultural appropriation to occur when someone takes an element from another culture and uses it without respecting its origins. It often manifests in a changing or re-purposing of something that is held sacred. Sometimes this goes so far as using a sacred symbol cavalierly resulting in a denigration of the culture from which it comes. This can come from the outright desire to have power over others or from sheer ignorance.
I have great appreciation for all that I have learned from my teachers and their lineages. I would like to honor each and every one of them in every class. Sometimes I point out something that I have learned from a specific teacher but I never have time to mention them all. Using the term “Namaste” is my way of acknowledging my gratitude for my teachers as well as the yogic tradition from which modern postural yoga is derived. As it literally means, “I bow to you,” it is simultaneously a way to honor my students.
Calling myself a yogi because I do postural practices that come out of yoga doesn’t feel right to me. However, ending class with “Namaste” seems an apt way to honor what I have learned and continue to learn from yogic traditions.
A Note on How Language Travels
Yogi Bear was a cartoon character created in 1958. For well into the 1980s, this friendly and goofy talking bear was many American kids’ first introduction to the term “Yogi.”
How did this happen?
Yogi Berra, born in 1928, was a famous baseball player known for his quick wit and pithy sayings. His given name was “Lawrence.” According to records in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Berra received the nickname “Yogi” from Jack Maguire, a teenage friend who had watched a newsreel about India. Jack noticed that, just like his friend often did when he was waiting for his turn at bat, Yogis in India sit on the ground cross-legged. Jack dubbed his friend “Yogi” and the name stuck.
For years Hanna-Barbera officially denied that the friendly and goofy cartoon character was named after Yogi Berra. Berra even filed brief lawsuit for defamation of character. However, Walter Brasch, author of Cartoon Monikers: An Insight into the Animation Industry says that it was not a coincidence as Yogi Berra was a household name at the time the cartoon character was created.