Namaste, Aum and the Language of Yoga

Being a student of yoga offers you the chance to become a student of language—Sanskrit; and since we have a few first-time yogis beginning their journey this month, I wanted to break down the meaning of common words I say in class which might be new to some of you.

Na-ma- what?

Namaste (Nah-mas-tay). I say it at the end of class, Why? Because my teachers say it, their teachers said it and I am honouring the yogi tradition of acknowledging my students with this phrase, which translates loosely to “the light in me, sees the light in you”. Some say “the Divine in me sees the Divine in you” others use the word God. Personally, I find those other terms less accessible than light, hence my preferred translation, and since yoga is not a religion but more like a blend of science and philosophy we don’t get dogmatic about these things; you are free to use and interpret Namaste simply as a greeting (as in Nepali language) — and what a beautiful way to greet someone “I see you, I acknowledge you”.

And for an even more flowery passionate expression of the phrase...

Courtesy of MerciMerci

Courtesy of MerciMerci

But back to my prefered translation, "the light in me sees the light in you". What is this “light in me” business?... The light of the soul? What is a soul anyway?... Pure consciousness/ pure being? Do I personally live in the light of pure being all the time, no! Sometimes? Hardly at all! To be completely honest 99.9% of the time I am very firmly here in the world, in my flesh and bones, at the whims of my senses and emotions. But, having glimpsed pure consciousness it is my wish that through yoga and sharing my practice with you fine people, we can connect with the universal aspects of our collective humanity on a person to person level and on the level of spirit through meditation practice, so we can all move towards our light—our ‘pure being’ which is essentially joyful and free.

And this is why I say… Namaste.


What about the Om/Aum? I was pleased to have someone ask this question last week and it was what prompted me to write this blog post. There are a couple of ideas about Om/Aum and I’ll let you choose what feels right for you (even the practice of chanting in class is always optional).

One thought is that Aum is just a sound and that by chanting/ (singing) this sound is essentially a way to draw the self inward; as we open our ears to the sound and send the breath to power the voice, the mind can rest in stillness, basking in sound and vibration.

Another interpretation, offered to us from ancient the vedic texts The Upanishads is that Aum was the very first sound; the sound of the universe being created, therefore making it a deeply sacred and complete sound which represents creation/ God in form. Aum can be broken down into four parts… 1. Ahhh 2. Auuuu 3. Mmmmm (which run together to form a droning sound) 4. Silence. The sound Aum is also expressed in the sketch, the Aumkara (Aum Symbol, see below). Different parts of the symbol represent four identified states of consciousness- 1. Awake 2. Deep Sleep 3. Dream State 4. Turiya, which is Sanskrit for the bliss state of being which is the ultimate goal of yoga and meditation.

Aum Symbol

Aum Symbol

What I love about yoga and the interpretation of Aum is; there are options for how you can approach the information and make it relevant to your life and experience. If a sound bath is what you are after, great, you will gain benefits from just listening to others chanting Aum. And if you would like to assign spiritual significance to the sound as you chant, this is great too, and you will also gain benefits from this. There is no right or wrong way to approach it.

As for all those other non English words you hear in class, you probably already guessed it, but they are the Sanskrit names of postures which have very boring translations (ie chattarunga dandasana is 'four limbed staff pose' and adho mukha svanasana is 'downward facing dog'), so I like to use the Sanskrit intermingled with the English in my teaching.

I’ll also read from the Yoga Sutras from time to time, which are in Sanskrit (translated to English of course) because they offer ancient pithy wisdom which, is powerfully relevant to modern life. And while we are on the topic of the sutras, here's one of my favourites… “Yogas Citta Vritti Nirodaha” Translation—When you can control the rising of the mind in to ripples, you will experience yoga.

Peace Peace Peace (Shanti Shanti Shanti)