Namaste is a word we have all heard, whether we have ever set foot in a yoga class. Some of us have even said it without knowing what it actually means, I know I did for the first few years of my yoga practice! So what does this omnipresent Sanskrit word actually mean?
Namaste is an honouring that you and I are connected. We are all connected in the web of life and If I harm you whether through words or actions I am ultimately harming myself. It is an acknowledgement that we are fundamentally the same being looking out at the world with different eyes.
Namaste has a deeply profound meaning that I believe is starting to pervade all aspects of the story of our Society.
The current dominant Western story of the world put forth through the various institutions, none more so than the media, is the idea of an evil 'other.'
According to this story, if this fearful 'other' could be dealt with then we would be free of any problem! Yet this 'other' is seemingly always changing, from the Soviets, to the terrorists, to the immigrants, to the criminals. The wars keep on going, the cameras keep on watching, the security keeps rising as do the tragic events.
This stems from the prevalent 'dispositionist psychology' that runs through our culture. This is a tendency to overlook the situations that people are in, and judge their behaviour based on what we assume is their personality.
Compare this to 'situational psychology,' this attributes a person's actions according to the situation they are in. From this belief of human nature, patience and compassion rather than judgment arise in challenging situations with other people.
An example; I am at the cinema queuing and someone pushes past and knocks my elbow in turn spilling my delicious popcorn, oh no! How could they!?
A dispositional response would be to label this person, rude, arrogant, or even worse a complete idiot! A situational response would be to wonder if this person was desperate for the toilet? Had they had a terrible day and were just being mindless when they rushed past? The list could go on but instead of labelling, the situationist would offer an empathetic response.
Expanding on this example further, most of in the West seem to be in a constant hurry. We live in a monetary system in which everything is seemingly valued in a financial way, therefore things that can't be measured by this system get squeezed out. When, 'time is money,' rushing becomes a part of life and as the study and our life experience shows when we are rushed compassion, patience and connection get pushed to the side. As do all the things that make life truly rich; connecting with a loved one, laughing freely, walking in a forest, staring up at the stars, dancing to beautiful music.
In Buddhism there is a belief that we all have an innate 'buddha nature'. The inborn qualities of patience, compassion, truth, playfulness, timelessness and curiosity. Anyone who has been around a baby, puppy, kitten, any new born living thing will surely acknowledge this to be true. No one is born innately 'bad', we are all living different experiences that affect our behaviour. Our behaviour always makes sense from our point of view. As the cultural critic Charles Eisenstein puts forth, 'If I were you I would do as you do.'
In difficult circumstances when feeling upset with someone this is very challenging, yet also truly life changing. Let us squeeze out the dispositional psychology and acknowledge a person's innate Buddha nature, to acknowledge we have never lived in their shoes and to acknowledge, ' If
I were you my brother or sister, I would behave just as you are.'
How does yoga help us slow down and tune into this inner empathy?
Practising yoga is cultivating a mindset of moment to moment, non-judgemental awareness. The yogi's have compared the mind to a drunken monkey... a drunken monkey stung by a scorpion that is jumping around maniacally! So when practising yoga and the monkey mind starts to jump to the past or future, (which it always does) we bring it back to the breath, to the sensations. We bring it back with patience, with compassion, every single time. This is building up the prefrontal cortex, the decisionmaking part of the brain helping us make better decisions off the matt as we can focus on the thoughts we want to and let go of the thoughts we don't. An extremely useful tool, especially when lying in bed at night!
When holding an asana the mindful mindset is to drop any expectations on how we might want to feel. Instead we allow whatever stored tensions or emotions that come, to arise naturally. By practising observing emotions equanimously we not only release them from the body we do so in a mindful way that accepts all sides of ourselves.
For example we are in a difficult pose and anger arises. Instead of tensing the muscles, holding the breath, trying to avoid this feeling, we use the breath to help stay in a calm nervous system response and mentally we cultivate an open aware mindful state allowing this anger to be as it is. This helps us retrain the nervous system and the emotional processing centres of the brain. Thus creating better emotional regulation in life. Instead of always acting from an emotion we learn how to choose and respond to an emotion. When we offer ourselves compassion and patience then it is much easier to share it out with others.
Even though the goal of yoga isn't to expect any particular feeling the positive side effects mentally, physically, emotionally and chemically are numerous:
GABA is the main inhibitory neurotransmitter in the nervous system. It helps cool things off and chill things out. People who struggle with anxiety or depression have been shown to have low amounts of GABA in their cerebrospinal fluid. In 2010 a study was done comparing yoga practitioners and walkers who did yoga or walking for an hour 3 times a week for 12 weeks.
The results......drum roll please. The yoga practitioners not only reported improved mood and decreased anxiety compared to the walking controls but their MRI scans showed increased GABA levels in their brains compared to the walkers. Thus showing how yoga helps us slow down, have better emotional regulation, self compassion and feel calmer in general.
Am I living fully in this compassionate not judgemental way? No I am not yet, but I am trying everyday in all situations in which I am emotionally challenged.
When I drop any cynicism and feel with my heart I know this way of living to be true. This on going attempt to live in this way has already started to improve all of my relationships. A willingness to understand a person's behaviour brings a more open and deeper connection.
It is easy to keep walking on the same, old path in a forest of judgment, and isolation but much as it is harder to walk on a new path of compassion and patience through the bushes and weeds the more we try the easier it gets. The more neural pathways are created in the brain and loving kindness becomes easier and easier.
I wonder what would happen if we all started to believe in the power of Namaste?