You say Namaste, I say yoga-blessing-thank-you hands

KerryBowsToward the end of the 2004 presidential election, I grew more curious about John Kerry’s habit of clasping his hands together and bowing to his audience. I’d seen the gesture before, mostly among Episcopal women who would say “Namaste” (which, they said, means “The God [or god] in me bows to the God in you”).

I asked GetReligion FOB Gary Gach, author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Buddhism, if he saw potential for a post on any spiritual content behind the gesture. Gach pointed me to this entry on page 156 of his book:

Two basic gestures practitioners use are in bowing and in meditation. Bowing is a meditation, in and of itself, and can be done just by joining palms, a universal gesture of spirit. There’s a famous etching by Albrecht Dürer of two hands praying, as if by themselves. In the East, putting palms and fingers together is a gesture of spiritual greeting, instead of shaking hands. In India and Thailand, you put your palms together at your chest and raise them to your forehead, often followed by a bow, still in that position — eyes and joined hands going outward and down to a spot on the ground equidistant between the greeter and the greeted. A bow can also be a quarter-inch. However done, bow or no bow, “palms-joined” says “The Buddha within me salutes the Buddha within you” (no dualism). “Have a nice day.”

On Wednesday’s edition of Fresh Air, Terry Gross found a humorous pop-culture description of the West’s truncated Namaste greeting. Speaking with Lisa Kudrow and writer Michael Patrick King of the new HBO series The Comeback, Gross remarked on how often Kudrow’s character, former celebrity Valerie Cherish, will bow to a TV crew or director as an assertion of power she doesn’t truly have.

Kudrow: The first thing that always came to mind with her, she’s like that bad old-time ad guy, that if you sell it and you sell it well enough, they’ll believe it, even if there’s absolutely no substance there to support what you’re trying to sell. That’s one thing that I was hoping would be really obvious, that she’s just a little bit over the top with her very assertive demand respect. It only comes up — she doesn’t address it when she’s actually getting pummeled.

King: I also wanted to mention something, Terry, about the hands. You were talking about her bowing all the time, earlier. We call those the yoga-blessing-thank-you hands. We laugh so hard, because that also is a little bit of a virus that’s running rampant in the actress community. Now you’ll start seeing it a lot. A lot of actresses do the yoga-blessing-thank-you hands — to interviewers, to people bringing them their lattes. Suddenly the hands come up. I’ve had actresses do it to me . . . when I say, “That was a really good scene,” they go — here come the hands — “No, you. No, it’s about you.” But it’s never about you. It’s about you saying “It’s about you.” So what we liked about the yoga-blessing-thank-you hands was that it was accurate and goofy. She’ll try to squeeze them in as she’s going out the door. Sometimes you’ll see just the tips of the hands as the door closes.

Kudrow: It’s a phony gesture of grace.

King: Yes! And centered spirituality, which she wouldn’t even know how to spell!

Each time King refers to yoga-blessing-thank-you hands, Gross lets loose with her wonderful chuckle. The segment on yoga-blessing-thank-you hands begins at about 21 minutes in, but the entire 31-minute interview is worth a listen.

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  • Darrell Grizzle

    It’s always sad when an ancient symbol of the sacred becomes trivialized by pop culture. Reminds me of Edwina in “Absolutely Fabulous,” doing her three-second “Buddhist meditation” as she runs out the door.

  • Andy Crouch

    It’s true (the part about this being a Hollywood thing). My coolest friends all do this.

    So does one of my least cool friends, an absolutely wonderful guy who has spent decades as a missionary in India and Pakistan. I had pointed out to him that there is no gesture in Western culture to express the sentiment “I’m sorry.” “Oh, there is in Pakistan,” he said, and pressed his palms together.

    Having a gesture that can express comity, humility, and mutual respect–I actually don’t think it’s such a bad thing. If it has to come through Hollywood actresses, well, let it come.

  • Molly

    “…comity, humility, and mutual respect…”

    What’s that? ;)

  • Tim G.

    Very intriguing on how an action is viewed differently by two separate cultures. On one hand, John Kerry may have intended the bow as a yogic, new age-esque greeting. On the other hand, such an action, in India, would be as surprising as someone waving their hand in America (in other words, not very surprising).

    Even Christians in India, from Catholics to Pentecostals, greet each other with the namaste action.

    Lastly, I’m pretty sure that namaste does not mean “The God [or god] in me bows to the God in you”. Those Episcopal ladies, unsurprisingly, are confused ;-)

    Namaste = nama + te, which literally means, “greetings to you”.

  • jjayson

    That “god in means bows to the god in you” is just hippie new-agey revisionism.

    It’s derived from two Sanscrit words: bow and you. And in Hindi class, you are taught it just means a formal “hello.”

    It would be like translating goodmorning as “I wish your inner god the most joyous beginning of the day.”

  • Chris Burd

    That’s sort of like Dalai Lama supposedly meaning “Ocean of Wisdom”. According a fantastically polyglot friend of mine, it just means “great priest”. (After all, what would Pachen Lama mean? “Lake of Wisdom”?)

  • acsenray

    “Namaste” or “namashkar” is the word of greeting, equivalent to “hello” or “how do you do”? It is not the name of the gesture and it has nothing to do with recognizing the divine in another.

    The word “namaste” is accompanied by two separate gestures: the bow and the hands.

    The bow is an expression of humility.

    The hands are a symbol of worship and they _do_ reflect the belief that the divine is present in all things. Of course, it has just become part of a standard greeting, but the notion of divinity is incorporated into the gesture, and is the _origin_ of the gesture, even if most people don’t mean it that way.