Namaste may not mean what you think it means.
To writer Deepak Singh, who was raised saying it in India, it’s a respectful “hello.” But, in a July 2015 piece for NPR, he writes:
In the past few years, namaste has reinvented itself. And the U.S. gets a lot of the credit (or blame). After moving to the United States, I went to a yoga class and heard the teacher say namaste. She had her hands joined in front of her, elbows sticking out. Her namaste sounded different from the one I knew. I say, “num-us-teh” vs. the Americanized “nahm-ahs-tay.”
After the class, I started paying attention to what Americans mean by namaste. I got the feeling that they didn’t think of it just as a greeting, but it had a spiritual connotation — a Hindu mantra, a divine chant, a yoga salutation. Using namaste in India never made me feel spiritual in any way. Even in the yoga classes I took in India, the teachers never uttered a namaste.
But a lot of Americans, while they may not claim to be religious, are trying very hard to be spiritual, even if that means cherry picking bits and pieces of other cultures and religions.
One of the most popular and lucrative examples of that is American yoga, which borrows words and ideas from Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
Often expensive, frequently pretentious and sometimes snootily exclusive, yoga encompasses everything from simple stretching to joint-twisting, sweaty workouts, presented with New Age trappings and liberal applications of Sanskrit phrases.
But in this hyper-sensitive PC age, is yoga just a form of high-priced cultural appropriation?
It’s an issue examined in a July 2013 piece at XOJane.com:
… many westerners seem to view yoga as an ancient tradition they’re honoring and preserving, as though people aren’t practicing it all over the world. And they’ve adopted it as their own pseudo-spiritual practice without acknowledging that it’s actually rooted in a specific religious tradition.
If I wouldn’t dream of taking Communion at a Catholic Church if I was attending as a guest, why would I practice yoga? Aren’t there lots of explicitly fitness-oriented options for me to choose from that don’t require me to appropriate religious practices from former colonies?
And, more recently, from a Nov. 25 piece in Vice:
The cost of Western yoga classes can be prohibitive, and [Toronto yoga teacher Julia] Gibran points out that as a result, many low- to middle-income people can’t afford to attend. That includes some Indian women who are new to the West and are then shut out of traditions belonging rightfully to them.
In the new Web series, “Namaste, B*****s,” which premiered online on Nov. 15, yoga instructor, actress, writer and producer Summer Chastant (AKA Shirey) takes aim at everything about yoga (specifically the L.A. kind) that annoys people who practice it and mystifies those who don’t (including a beginner of Indian heritage who leaves a class because there are too many “white people”).
The series follows thirtysomething yoga teacher Sabine (Chastant), who relocates to Los Angeles from New York after teaching classes there for five years. She gets a test run at an L.A. studio, Namaste Yoga, run by Radhe (Alex Dawson), a scarf-wearing former hippie who masks her ruthless business instincts with Sanskrit phrases, chanting and “Gratitude.”
There’s no nudity, but there is profanity and drug use (and even worse, smoking), so the series is NSFW. But according to Chastant, a yoga practitioner and teacher, it’s spot on in its portrayal of narcissism, backstabbing and pomposity.
Speaking to L.A. Weekly, Chastant said:
“There’s a sense of delusion that comes with being in a position of power,” Chastant says of the propensity for students to obsessively look up to their instructors. “I really wanted to unmask and unveil that.”
Another piece in L.A. Weekly, from 2013, runs down the top 10 yoga studios in Los Angeles, from the free and funky to the swank and sophisticated.
Its number one? YogaWorks, which has more than 30 locations in New York, Los Angeles, Orange County (California), Boston and Washington, D.C.
At the Brentwood studio in Los Angeles, it’ll set you back $115 a month ($13.37 per class, twice a week), with unlimited classes and a minimum two-month commitment. In Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., the same plan costs $135 per month.
In “Namaste, B*****s,” that chain is characterized as “YogaWorld,” Namaste Yoga’s corporate competitor, which is out to infiltrate Namaste’s classes and poach its most popular instructor.
At one point, Radhe praises Sabine for tearing up one of YogaWorlds’ posters as an act of defiance against big business (in truth, her reasons are a lot more personal).
As Sabine observes, “Yoga, what a stresser, huh?”