The word “Namaste” is pretty played out these days, isn’t it?
You can find it everywhere: on yoga mats, on bumper stickers, on water bottles. You can buy a “Namaste In Bed” t-shirt on Amazon. You can pick up Namaste bracelets and handbags and trucker hats on Etsy. You can dig into Namaste-brand gluten-free pizza crust and chicken noodle soup. You can walk into Namaste-branded pilates studios and wellness centers.
(Not to mention the hilarious yoga-world-skewering web series Namaste, Bitches.)
The word itself has taken on a certain cultural significance. It’s become a brand, recognizable even to someone who’s never stepped foot on a yoga mat.
Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called this phenomenon spiritual materialism. Spiritual materialism occurs when a spiritual concept or practice is turned into a product for the purpose of making money. It’s rooted in the idea that you can buy and sell spiritual qualities like peace, grace, or transcendence.
There’s no going back now.
I’m having a hard time writing about yoga lately.
There’s such a cruel juxtaposition of things going on in the world.
It’s summer yoga festival season. My FB feed is packed with photos of half-naked tan bendy people decorated with henna tattoos and patterned leggings doing yoga poses on mountains everywhere I look. And they are having so much FUN and sweating and chanting and living and doing their thang, you know? And I’ve been there and done that myself, and oh man yes, is it so fun. Right on, people! Namaste! Jai Ma!
But those yogis-gone-wild posts are bookended with videos of awful shootings in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis and Dallas and heartbreaking massacres on the French Riviera and hand-wringing from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where fiery speakers are calling for gun rights and white supremacists are offering prayers.
How are we supposed to even reconcile the two?
It feels crass, doesn’t it? To share happy-pretty-shiny yoga pictures on Instagram when the world feels like it is, quite literally, devolving into chaos?
I’ve only got one word.
When we put our palms together in Anjali mudra and bow at the end of class, we’re saying: the spark of divinity in me acknowledges the spark of divinity in you.
We’re saying: I see the God in you. And in so doing, I’m reminded of the God in me, too.
Some people get freaked out by this. I see it from my seat up front. The awkwardness. The twitching. The just-wanting-for-it-to-be-over so they can roll up their mats and get out of there. There’s something pseudo-spiritual about it that rubs a lot of people the wrong way.
(Here’s a hilarious confession from one such person, found in Laurie Penny’s scathing and whip-smart recent essay, “Life Hacks of the Poor and Aimless:”
“I confess to you that I’ve been doing yoga for two years and it’s changed my life to an extent that I almost resent. I have trained myself, through dedicated practice on and off the mat, to find enough inner strength not to burst out laughing when the instructor ends the class by declaring ‘let the light in me honor the light in you.’ The instructor is a very nice person who smiles all the time like a drunk kindergarten teacher and could probably kill me with her abs alone, so I have refrained from informing her that the light in me is sometimes a government building on fire.”
One of my early Bikram teachers used to close class by sarcastically saying “May the Force be with you.” It got the point across. I’ve known colleagues to say this at the end of class instead:
“I honor the place in you where the entire universe dwells. I honor the place in you that is of light, love, truth, peace and wisdom. When you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, We Are One.”
Works for me. Same idea, right?
My teacher Rusty used to remind us that “no one has more God than anyone else.” I felt jumpy about that word for a long time, you know, remembering that for lots of folks, “God” hasn’t always been a friendly force. “God” has often been an old white bearded dude who supposedly hates gays and oppresses women and denounces sex.
Meh. Not for me. Not for many of us.
So you use other words. Try “life force” or “prana” or “soul” or “being,” for starters.
Bhakti yoga and meditation teacher Ram Dass describes namaste this way:
Treat everyone you meet like God in drag.
Can you imagine? Every interaction would be transformed — from your daily encounter with the Starbucks barista, to the toll booth guy, to the parking ticket lady, to your neighbor with the Confederate flag in his yard.
What goodness could come about?
Let’s take it further. What if, gulp, Donald Trump is God in drag? (Hint: he is.) What if Hillary Clinton is God in drag, too? (Hint: she is.) What if Mike Pence and Bernie Sanders and Stephen Colbert and Roger Ailes and Megyn Kelly and Kanye West and Kim Kardashian (yes, Kim, too) are all God in drag?
(Spoiler: they are.)
How would that change the way you move through the world?
It’s so easy to villainize one another right now, especially in the heat of this topsy-turvy election year. So easy to demonize, to dehumanize, to forget that every single one of those controversial figures is a unique child of God, a spark of divinity, a bodhisattva — yes, Donald Trump, along with Hillary Clinton and you and your mom and your 8th grade algebra teacher.
If we can manage to see this light of divinity in one another, it’s a whole lot easier to be kind. Realizing that Donald and Hillary and Kim and Kanye are people who age, and ache, and heal, and wonder about their life’s purpose; realizing that they are someone’s beloved, someone’s child, someone’s parent, someone’s whole world, just as you are someone’s beloved, someone’s child, someone’s parent, someone’s whole world.
We have to be gentle. We can get furious, yes, and passionate, yes, and fired-up and righteously angry and impatient to call out injustice — and we SHOULD. But we need to lend a certain tenderness to that anger, too; an implicit remembering that underneath all the political brou-ha-ha is someone who wakes up in the middle of the night and scratches his butt and walks to the bathroom for a drink of water and lies down again in a body that’s older and creakier and more tired and more wrinkled than it was the year before.
And man, it’s hard. Sometimes, it feels damn near impossible.
But namaste reminds us, challenges us, to see every life as equally worthwhile, equally a manifestation of goodness and potential and divinity — especially those that have been historically and systematically devalued. To see every body: black, brown, white, old, young, queer, disabled, dressed in rags or dressed in couture, as equally valuable, worthy of care, alight with the spark of divinity.
Alton Sterling had that spark. Philando Castile had it. Trayvon Martin had it. Oscar Grant had it. The police officers killed in Dallas and Baton Rouge had it. The families on the boardwalk in Nice had it.
I’ve heard a lot of folks say they’re done with politics for now; they’re disenchanted, and they don’t want to see anything else. They just wanna do yoga and fill their FB feeds with puppies and cat videos and pictures of food.
But that doesn’t feel right to me. This stuff is real. It’s way more real than some kitten riding around in a shark costume on a Roomba. It’s way more real than Pokemon Go. It’s real to your kids and their future and the future of this planet. It’s not just a bunch of political hot air. It has ramifications, enormous personal and socio-political and global ramifications, and to shut that dialogue out is to bury our heads in the sand.
Suffering is universal. Aging is universal. Buddhism’s First Noble Truth reminds us of this.
I don’t believe that anyone is inherently evil. I do believe that in the course of being in a human body people suffer, and that damaged people, hurt people.
But they’re God, too. Infuriating avatars. God dressed up to challenge our every assumption and piss us off and offer us opportunities to stay open-hearted and gentle and kind. And we can still hold them accountable for their less-than-life-giving behavior while acknowledging their humanity. When those avatars act in a way that does not lift up every being’s wholeness, that threatens the well-being of large groups of people based on their race or their income or their religion, it’s up to us to call them out.
This, too, is namaste.
Namaste serves as a non-denominational challenge to not get lazy or complacent; to realize that we can’t just myopically contain our practice to the mat. We can’t be content with just stretching and breathing and preaching that the peace of the microcosm will benefit that of the macrocosm. We can’t just look to the privilege of our own self-care and say, ok, it’s all well and good to do this, so I don’t need to march or protest or write or sing or tweet.
We have to take that namaste one step further.
Activist and yogi Kerri Kelly spoke this truth beautifully in her recent TEDx talk. She called out the problem of “the privilege of well-being,” arguing cogently that we yogis are mandated to step out of our green-juiced, acupunctured bubbles and show up off the mat as well as on, rejecting “a storyline sponsored by a system that profits from our sickness.”
Kelly describes the ways in which she’s grappled with her own privilege of well-being over the years, realizing that “no one can be well unless everyone is well; we are in this together.” She learned to follow her own pain into a process of transformation, collective action, and reconciliation, and now calls on us all to “discover that we are not alone in our heartbreak and we are not alone in our hope.”
Though the system may be broken, though there remain deep structural inequalities and wretched institutionalized suffering, we are called to come together to revolutionize that system, to acknowledge the wholeness in each being, to call out the injustice that blinds us to one another’s divinity, and to bow to one another across the barricades.
Rachel Meyer is a Portland, Oregon-based writer and yoga teacher. Her work has appeared in Yoga Journal, The Washington Post, On Being, HuffPost, Yoga International, RecoveringYogi, and more. You can find her at www.rachelmeyeryoga.com.