I honor you. All of you.
The good and the bad.
The light and the dark.
The divine and the human.
The parts that doubt.
The parts that feel certain.
The parts that don’t know.
The parts that leave.
The parts that stay.
The parts that hide.
I honor the whole you.
The you that stumbles.
The you that falls.
The you that rises…and falls again.
The you that gracefully balances.
The you that is rooted.
The you that is buoyant.
I honor you.
The you that is hurting.
The you that harms.
The you that grows.
The you that loves.
The you that can’t.
The you that will.
I bow to you. I bow to you. I bow to YOU.
* * *
My first yoga teacher used to tell us, “I’m just an old junkie, passing on what helped me change. Sat Nam.”
With a strong Kundalini practice and immersion in American Sikh communities for the first 10 years of my yoga journey, “Sat Nam” became an everyday greeting. Whether I said it silently or out loud, I reverently offered this prayer to my friends, to my co-workers, to strangers. “Sat Nam: I honor your truth.”
As with the Native American, Yoruban, Jewish and other spiritual perspectives that started shaping my view of myself and others in the early 90s, I embraced the inclusive nature of “Sat Nam.” When someone pressed their palms into prayer position at their heart, and said, “I honor your truth,” I felt genuine and total acceptance.
When I started practicing Vinyasa style yoga in about 2001, I heard a new greeting. Teachers would end class saying, “Namaste: the light in me bows to the light in you.” Or, “Namaste: the divine in me bows to the divine in you.” Or, “Namaste: I bow to all that is good and light and divine in you.”
Sorry, but that was my first reaction! “Ick.” What about the imperfect, the dark, the messily human parts of me? If you know even a little of my story (and you might guess some of it, based on my respect for and admiration of my first yoga teacher), you know that those very non-good, non-light and non-divine parts ruled my world for a good long time. I also grew to understand, accept, appreciate and deeply love those parts after yoga came into my life in the 90s, and I started growing toward a healthier balance.
Yoga continued to be a huge part of my life; and I started to feel defensive at the end of classes, when teachers pressed their palms into prayer mudra at their heart and – with all the best intentions – bowed to the light in me. Sadly, I grew to resent this highfalutin’ “Namaste.”
* * *
After 15 years of yoga practice, I decided to become an instructor. I chose the residential Integral Yoga Teacher Training at Satchidananda Ashram in Virginia. At the IYTT, we ended classes (and meetings, texts and e-mails!) with “OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.” I didn’t notice at the time, but am now realizing that I did not hear one single “Namaste” during the four weeks. As the days passed, our immersion in the Yoga Sutras and the Eight Limbs nourished my craving for a sustainable inner peace – and, my yearning to share yoga’s tools for cultivating that peace. I became very comfortable ending classes with “OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti: Peace, Peace, Peace.”
Then came the dilemma. Teaching at studios in DC, I would end sessions with “OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti,” and some students would bow and answer “Namaste.” Ack! Did these students think that I didn’t appreciate their light? Mama mia. Quickly, I had to let go of that worry and continue to believe in my choice to simply wish my students peace.
* * *
Over recent years, I started hearing different definitions of “Namaste.”
In 2011, I attended a yoga workshop with Max Strom. He both greeted us with and explained “Namaste.” “I bow to you,” he said, firmly. “That’s all it means. If you go to India, you will be greeted the same way by everyone, whether saying good morning at a temple, or, buying a drink at a tea shop.”
In 2012, one of our summer camp teaching assistants was from Nepal. He told me that in his Hindu culture, “Namaste” (or “Namaskar”) is a basic greeting. As common as “Hello,” and as meaningful as “I honor you.”
Earlier this spring, 2013, at the Shiva Navaratri ceremony I attended, the Hindu priests would periodically invite devotees to take some “Namaskaram.” I saw people doing prostrations, offering themselves in deep bows and lowering themselves to the ground. With this visual illustration, I finally understood that Namaskar is the most humble way to show respect, honor, gratitude. (It also redefined my own practice and teaching of Surya Namaskaram, or, Sun Salutations.)
Quite recently, I noticed a residual jolt of resentment when someone offered a bow to the divine in me. I’ll admit it – I needed academic validation that “Namaste” is inclusive of our entire being. I asked a Sanskrit expert for the literal translation. His response: namas = I bow/ honor/salute; te = to you. “I bow to you.” “I honor you.” “Salutations to you.” It is a reverential expression of greeting and/or thanks. Used as hello, goodbye, and thank you.
What a relief! No matter what other teachers say, I can finally focus on the true meaning of the greeting when I hear it. I can feel the essence of unqualified acceptance.
* * *
I’ve chosen to continue closing my classes with my IY-influenced “OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti…Peace, Peace, Peace.” But for the month of April, I have been experimenting. Replacing “OM Shanti” with “Namaste.” And I have to admit, it still feels very uncomfortable. Because I know students have heard other teachers share their adapted definitions of the greeting. And I don’t want them to think that I only honor the good, the light, the divine. I want them to know that I deeply bow to every single part.
From this, the above poem evolved.
I will always remember and yearn for the humility of my first yoga teacher. That old junkie, just sharing what changed him. So whether I offer “Namaste,” “Sat Nam,” “OM Shanti,” “Yo, wha’s up?” “Hi!” or even a silent smile, I offer my greeting with 100% honor for the whole of you.
* * *
I still wonder: What influenced the new “Namaste?” Where did the good/light/divine skew come from? Why would millions of yogis – in the studios and the trainings and the magazines and the videos – want to stray so far from the real thing?
Well…that’s another can of worms, for a different writer to tackle!
OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.