Visit theallusionist.org/namaste to hear and read about this episode.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, help language up off the floor after a downward dog goes wrong.
We’re sticking with yoga for for today’s show, so let’s limber up with a little word history sponsored by Blue Apron. To explain the word yoga, here is Jim Mallinson, senior lecturer in Sanskrit and classical Indian Studies at SOAS, University of London.
JM: The word ‘yoga’: well, it comes from a root, 'yeug', which is cognate with a yoke, for joining two things together. Although within the Indian grammar tradition, there are actually two understandings of this root 'yeug'. It can either mean to join things together or it can simply mean to meditate. And we find that in the definitions of yoga within yoga texts as well: it's either seen as you're joining yourself with something else - and again that can get interpreted in many different ways depending upon the metaphysical understanding of the tradition that's teaching yoga - or it simply means to enter a state of meditation, specifically the state of samadhi.
HZ: More from Jim Mallinson in a moment. Thanks to Blue Apron for sponsoring this episode of the Allusionist, and for taking the hassle out of cooking delicious meals at home using carefully sourced ingredients. Blue Apron has established partnerships with over 150 local farms, fisheries and ranchers across the United States, because sustainability and environmental responsibility are important in food production. And to reduce food waste, Blue Apron will give you the right amount of ingredients for the recipes they come up with each week. Peruse the meals which you could be cooking and eating very soon, and receive your first three meals for free if you’re in the contiguous USA, at blueapron.com/allusionist.
On with the show.
YOGA INSTRUCTOR: Take another deep breath in, drawing the chin to the throat... soften the gaze into the heart, and to take this moment to honour yourself and your practice, with a namaste.
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: My name is Hrishikesh Hirway. I'm the host of Song Exploder. Helen, I can't stand the word ‘namaste’.
HZ: Really? Why?
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: Well, first of all most of the time when you hear it in America it's not even pronounced correctly. People say nama.... I can't even do it. Na Mas Te. NAMASTE!
HZ: What are we supposed to say?
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: Namaste. Namaste. The T has a little T-H. Namaste.
HZ: I’m going to have to practise in my own time. That is a difficult consonant to achieve. I’ll practise by myself; it’ll be less humiliating than with you here, with pity in your eyes.
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: That’s not pity, it’s judgement.
HZ: OK. It's mispronounced. That's the first problem.
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: All the time. And then it gets used. You know, I live in LA, which is probably the global hub of McDonald's yoga; and every time it's said you know with this sanctimonious kind of, "Oh, namaste," and I'm like, first, if you're going to use it in this kind of faux profound way, please learn to say it correctly.
HZ: Do you attend yoga classes ever?
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: I do sometimes go because in things both linguistic and physical, I'm not very flexible.
HZ: So it's trying in two ways.
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: Yeah.
HZ: And what happens if someone says it to you?
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: I stay silent. I'm like, do you do you notice that the only Indian person in this room is not saying it?
HZ: What do you think 'namaste' means?
YOGA CLASS VOX POPS
Be good in the world.
Love for yourself; self love.
Love, peace and happiness.
I respect you.
Alright, complete guess: go with an open heart, in peace.
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: You know, namaste really is just a greeting. So imagine you go for a workout in your spandex workout pants, and at the end, your trainer or your instructor goes, “Helllooooooo” and bows really deeply.
JM: So within yoga itself, no; it's never played a particularly important role, or any role, perhaps.
HZ: Jim Mallinson.
JM: So 'namaste' really is a formal greeting, it's a very formal greeting still to this day; you also hear people say 'namaskar' perhaps just as often as 'namaste' in Indian languages. But yeah, it's pretty formal: you would see, government meetings, people will say 'namaste' or 'namaskar' to one another. It's very much from the Sanskritic Hindu tradition in India.
HZ: Is 'namaste' a Sanskrit word?
JM: 'Namaste' is two Sanskrit words. It is the word 'namas' and then the word 'te', and 'namas' comes from the root 'nam', which means to bow or pay homage to. So 'namas' can mean a bow, or it can just mean a sort of expression of respect or homage. And then 'te' is the dative form, so the 'to' form of to the second person pronoun 'you'. So it means 'to you'.
HZ: So a literal translation of namaste would be 'homage to you'.
JM: What I do find interesting and ironic is I've spent a lot of time in traditional yogi communities in India today, and they'll get quite annoyed if you say ‘namaste’ to them, because they are generally - always, pretty much - of certain sectarian traditions; so they'll either be followers of the god Shiva, or of Rama or of Krishna or whoever. And each lineage will have a specific greeting. So for example, the lineage that I'm associated with, they will always say "Sita ram" to one another, because they worship the goddess Sita and the god Ram together. Other tradition, it'll be "Om namo narayanaya", so again you've got the 'namo', which is another form of 'namast' it changes: namas, namo, namaha, they're all the same word. But then it's homage to the god Narayana. And if you say 'namaste', they don't like that. It's perhaps putting too much importance on the person rather than the God. And so for these for these yogi traditions, it's generally the god of their lineage that is the be all and end all, the most important thing, rather than the individual.
HZ: But modern, westernized yoga does skew more towards individualism.
JM: The modern globalized yoga traditions in the West have become very much divorced from those those roots anyway.
AJ: With the development of modern yoga, the spiritual dimension of yoga was increasingly reflective of a sort of emergent modern metaphysical religiosity -
HZ: This is Andrea Jain.
AJ: - where there was an emphasis on the sort of democratic approach to religion that being one in which there wasn't a dependence on a sort of external religious authority. There was more emphasis on sort of individualized practice and individualized path. So there's a sort of set tradition or set collection of practices and ideas that's presented to the consumer as a sort of package that the consumer can then pick and choose from. So the consumer doesn't have to buy in to the entire package, right? The consumer can kind of pick and choose these particular practices or these particular ideas that are compatible with other ideas or practices they've selected from other areas of life, and so then construct an individualized lifestyle that includes yoga.
HZ: Andrea Jain is an associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University School of Liberal Arts in Indianapolis, and the author of Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture.
AJ: It's interesting because yoga was always changing. It was always developing new forms. And so for it to change and evolve and respond to larger socioeconomic developments, political developments, cultural developments... that wasn't unusual. So when in the 19th century yoga practitioners, in addition to various Americans and Europeans who were interested in topics ranging from metaphysics to fitness, they started to exchange ideas and construct new modern yoga traditions that in part responded to modern ideas and values in modern science. And, yeah, that happened rather rapidly in the late 19th, early 20th centuries.
HZ: Sounds a long time ago? Not in yoga’s lifespan.
AJ: Yoga has a really, extremely long history, going back about 2500 years. And the thing is is that there was no single yoga tradition: it's always been this polythetic tradition that's taken many different forms.
HZ: Though broadly with a common aim.
AJ: Basically the goal was to achieve a state of enlightened consciousness, enlightenment.
HZ: So how does this 2,500-year-old practice from India come to be popular now in gyms on the other side of the world?
AJ: Yeah, right, so it's really fascinating because in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, modern yoga develops and it becomes this global phenomenon in the sense that Americans and Europeans and the Japanese - yoga becomes something that people are familiar with in many different parts of the world. So it's become this global phenomenon; but it hasn't yet undergone popularization. It wasn't until the late 20th century that it really underwent popularization and that was a consequence of a number of developments: There was an increase in physical mobility due to improved technology, and also the lifting of tight immigration restrictions in Britain, France, and United States that led to an influx of South Asian immigrants, including yogic instructors, yoga gurus, into the United States and Britain especially.
HZ: And this movement of people coincided with the cultural and social movements of the 1960s and 70s.
AJ: This period of the 1960s and early 1970s featured a widespread disillusionment with established religious institutions. Sowe talk about the 1960s counterculture - British-American counterculture - and new gurus broke into this competitive spiritual market and prescribed what were seen as these exotic wares, spiritual wares, as solutions to what the hippies basically deemed to be the destructive materialistic ideologies they were raised with. And so they were looking for something radically counter to the worldview they were raised with.
HZ: And they found it in the culture of South Asia.
AJ: They saw it as the most radically different form of religiosity they could find. And so these gurus kind of tapped into that market for South Asian wares. So at the very method through which people learned yoga changed when, instead of relying on transmission through the traditional intimate guru-disciple relationship in an isolated ashram in India, gurus began to market yoga to mass audiences by travelling all over the country, by creating flyers, booklets, books that were widely published and distributed. And then postural yoga in particular - what we call modern postural yoga, which is the kind of yoga you're talking about, where we find it in every shopping strip mall and in gyms and colleges and universities - this modern pastoral yoga increasingly intersected with what was an emergent global consumer culture.
HZ: And that’s where the emphasis on individualism crept into yoga.
AJ: So the modern postural yoga advocates really meshed with this consumer culture that really celebrated an individualized practice and individualized lifestyle. And that's how it underwent popularisation is it became so accessible to consumers with a variety of backgrounds, a variety of needs, and a variety of desires.
HZ: Who would not necessarily have the background knowledge to know whether ‘namaste’ is appropriate in this context - or to know what it means.
AJ: A lot of yoga proponents will say "Yeah, it means blessings" or one of the common ones I hear is "I bow to the god in you," or "I bow to the Divinity in you." I've heard that one often as well. So you know these real overtly religious meanings that aren't original to 'namaste' at all.
HZ: Andrea doesn’t know exactly when and how ‘namaste’ was co-opted into modern westernised yoga.
AJ: But I know that it at least goes as far back as the mid 20th century. I don't know who was the initial modern yoga figure to start introducing this in the context of yoga classes, but my sense is that it became common because it serves two purposes: The first is that the use of namaste demarcates the yoga practice from other areas of life, right? So you have a busy life, you're going to and from work, you've got your family commitments, and then you go into the yoga class and it's supposed to be a separate space. And so at the beginning of the class you say namaste and it's sort of a signal, it's a sort of ritual signal. We're going to do the yoga routine. And then the class doesn't officially end until the teacher again says namaste. And so it has that real sort of ritual function.
And the other purpose, though, is that namaste really grounds the yoga practitioners practice in an assumed ancient lineage, in the sense that it’s this exotic Sanskrit term that basically signals, 'you know we're doing something that is old and ancient.' And that gives a sense of authenticity, which has been very important in the history of modern yoga. And it gives yoga practitioners a real sense of belonging and purpose and meaning that makes their yoga practice feel special - that it is something distinct from just a you know ordinary running routine or you know aerobic class.
HZ: Adopting and adapting a term like ‘namaste’ to confer authenticity and spirituality upon a fitness trend spread far from its origins would ring the cultural appropriation alarm for a lot of people.
AJ: I don't think that cultural appropriation is inherently a bad thing. So some have criticized the popularization of yoga and the use of terms like ‘namaste’ because they see it as an illegitimate co-optation of a South Asian cultural product into, you know, these commercialized yoga classes. I think that there is absolutely something to be said for the history of colonialism and the unfair distribution of resources and the ways that power is distributed unequally due to forces of colonialism and capitalism: these larger structures I think really need to be questioned and challenged. But the history of religious practices and in cultural practices is a history of exchange. So the appropriation itself I don't see as inherently flawed.
HZ: You're complaining about the problem but you're not offering a solution. What would you like to replace this form of namaste as it is pronounced in this form. Have you got something that could be in its stead?
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: How does anybody wrap up any kind of workout? Because that's all it is at this point it's just like an exercise routine. So. You know or even if you want to think of it as like a meditation thing like at the end it doesn't need to be... Certainly in the way that I've seen it used in LA it's done as like this exercise. It's physical wellness and that's important. But then to have to like import some holiness at the end just seems like such a cheap hack move.
HZ: But it's like when you get the bill at a restaurant and they've drawn a smiley face on it because that is the last act they can commit before they receive money from you. Obviously hoping that will ramp up the money. So maybe it's here's your little shot of spiritualism to be on your way with.
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: Yeah, that's definitely how it's used.
HZ: Whereas you think it should be: Get out. Go and shower.
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: It's just like...great job. Yeah. Good work out.
HZ: The end.
HRISHIKESH HIRWAY: The end. Have a great day.
Thanks to Andrea Jain and Jim Mallinson for sharing their knowledge in this episode. Jim co-authored the new book Roots of Yoga, which traces the history of yoga and offers new translations of key texts. And to learn more about the modern development of yoga and its popularisation in western culture, there’s Andrea’s book Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture.
This episode came about when I was driving around with Hrishikesh Hirway and he shared his linguistic peeve with me, as if I did not have enough of my own. Thanks a bunch, Hrishi.
Hrishi makes two spectacular podcasts that are also in the Radiotopia family: The West Wing Weekly and Song Exploder, in which musicians take apart their songs and show all the creative and practical decisions that went into putting them together. A few of my favourite episodes are the ones featuring Solange, Bjork, Clipping and Tune-Yards, but just dive in anywhere - doesn’t matter whether you’re familiar with the artist, there’s always something to learn.
In The West Wing Weekly, Hrishi and cast member Joshua Malina dissect every episode of The West Wing - they’re into season 3 now - and they’ll be performing at Radiotopia Live at the Ace Theatre in Los Angeles on 12 May, along with Criminal, The Memory Palace, Mortified, 99% Invisible and me. For tickets to that or the other dates on our west coast tour next week, visit radiotopia.fm/live.
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