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The Art of the Silent Bow

Yoga teacher and mindfulness researcher Riya Deshpande on expressing appreciation and humility through Namaskar.

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As I sit down to write this article, I place my palms together and bow my head in quiet reverence and gratitude. As an Indian-American woman, I have the freedom to study, practice, work, and teach because of the people who came before me. My relatives, teachers, and community built a foundation to keep ancient spiritual teachings alive, and I am humbled by the knowledge that without them—and without the people who will read my words because they seek to learn—I would not have this opportunity. 

This physical embodiment of gratitude and humility is common in many Eastern and Indigenous practices. In Indian culture, Hinduism, and in yoga practice, we call this namaskar.    

A First Step to Transformation

Yoga practitioners from Western backgrounds may recognize the word namaskar mainly as part of Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) sequences. This is one valuable form of namaskar, but in South Asian culture, the gesture is inherently woven into the fabric of living. Namaskar is offered in a variety of ways: palms together in Namaste as a reverential greeting; touching the floor or feet of our elders (Pada Namaskar) as humble respect; and bowing before altars or deities in gratitude or prayer. Each of these examples illustrates an important foundation of yoga—humility and appreciation.

Humility expressed as silence communicates an openness to listening. Bowing your head or body signifies a surrender to wisdom beyond your intellect. That said, yoga philosophy doesn’t expect us to live in constant surrender to the point of passivity. Yoga is an experience of balance or unity of various forces. Namaskar, or surrender, can be considered clearing and appreciating the vessel—whether it’s your body, your mind, an opportunity, or a blank page—before filling it. It simultaneously marks the beginning and the end. 

See also What is Ahimsa?

Ancient texts that teach yoga, such as the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, don’t necessarily have direct translations of the words humility and gratitude. But the concepts are encapsulated in nearly each sutra, or thread, of philosophy as non-egoism and non-attachment. In yoga, egoism and attachment are considered the human affliction of viewing our wants as needs—of allowing our individual desire for control to outweigh the common good. Namaskar is a physical way of relinquishing self-importance and acknowledging the present, and it can support non-egoism in practical ways.

During a retreat I attended years ago, everyone in the group was asked to silently pause at the threshold of the kitchen where we shared responsibilities each time we entered and left the room. In this brief moment of stillness, we were invited to observe the space and ourselves. At first, I was resistant to this practice because it went against what I saw as efficient. But the more I did it, the more my mind and body relaxed. Ironically, even though these pauses took away from the time we had to cook, clean, and eat, not a single plate was dropped, not one knick was incurred from a cooking knife, and every meal was enjoyed without feeling rushed. 

How to Practice Namaskar

There is a relief in humility. Letting go of control can reduce the pressure to figure everything out on our own. It can remind us that no matter what else is happening, the world is turning, the sun will continue to rise and set, and there are cycles in nature and in our own physiology happening with no effort on our part. 

Panchanga Namaskar is a full yogasana expression of that surrender. Pancha means “five,” and anga means “body part.” Panchanga Namaskar, like Balasana (Child’s Pose), allows five main parts of the body to connect with the floor: the forehead, two elbows, and two knees. Resting postures in namaskar can create a parasympathetic nervous system relaxation response that may prove especially beneficial these days, when it’s hard to find quiet amid smartphone pings and seemingly endless virtual calls. 

Child’s Pose is often suggested as a break or counterpose during a yoga class. It allows students to self-observe and self-regulate. When you begin something with Child’s Pose—a yogasana sequence, your morning, even a new project—it helps you start whatever it is with quiet humility and reverence. 

Photo: Rina Deshpande

An even fuller physical expression of namaskar is Sashtanga Namaskar, in which eight body parts completely rest on the floor: forehead, chest, two hands, two knees, and two sets of toes. Taking the time to arrange your body into an extended surrender like this is an act of humility in itself. If it’s best for your body to remain upright, namaskar can also be practiced by simply pausing, closing your eyes, and comfortably breathing, then bringing your palms to touch slowly and lightly bowing your head for as long as you like. Whichever variation of namaskar you practice, think of the gesture as a physical expression of these words: “From head to toe, I humbly surrender my entire ego.”

In my short morning routine, I start with Panchanga Namaskar. When I’m in a rush, I briefly touch my palms together instead—and interestingly, when I do this quickly and without awareness, it doesn’t feel as powerful. When I spend more than a fleeting moment in namaskar, my mind follows suit. I experience true gratitude for the new day or the opportunity before me. 

Which is why I find myself naturally pausing again as this piece comes to a close. It’s a simple yet powerful way to honor my parents and teachers for their knowledge and model of humility, and it’s a chance to offer my gratitude to you, for reading.  

See also What’s the Difference Between Cultural Appropriation and Cultural Appreciation.