Editor’s Note: Hitendra Wadhwa is a Professor of Practice at Columbia Business School, where he’s won several awards, including the Dean’s Award for Teaching Excellence. He is the founder of Mentora Institute, which brings leadership development and culture change to organizations globally. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
We humans were meant to be social animals. We thrived on connection, community and kinship. When we met up with other humans, it wasn’t enough to simply be there with them; we felt an urge to instantly bond with them. And so we kissed, we hugged, we shook hands, we high-fived.
That was how things were until early 2020. Then came the age of coronavirus and the need for social distancing, self-isolation, quarantine, lockdown and shelter-in-place.
Today, we humans continue to be social animals, and we continue to crave connection. We need to find a way to build an instant bond but we have to do it without physical contact. Research shows that a single handshake can transfer 124 million bacteria on average, so it is quite likely a perfect way to share viruses as well. A high-five will transfer about half of that number.
Some of us have dusted the elbow bump off the shelf. This is what the World Health Organization told us to use in the 2006 age of avian flu.
But let’s face it, elbow contact just doesn’t have the same sizzle as, say, a handshake or a hug. You just have to see this picture of two grimacing presidential candidates to feel convinced about that.
And Director-general of the World Health Organization Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently said it wasn’t a good idea, tweeting “When greeting people, best to avoid elbow bumps because they put you within 1 meter of the other person.”
So some elder statesmen around the world are using the bonding method that they’ve learned during their state visits to India: Namaste.
Namaste around the world
In case you haven’t taken a yoga class, namaste is when you bring your hands together, palms pressed against each other, centered at your chest. Namaste is part of several yoga postures, but it is also the traditional way in which the people of India greet each other. And, since it involves no physical contact, it is virus-proof.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had traveled to India in 2018. So when coronavirus struck, he was one of the first to adopt namaste as his greeting of choice. He has also encouraged his country to abandon handshakes and adopt namaste – and is giving free tutorials.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron also recently decided to employ namaste in welcoming Spain’s King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia. The French ambassador to India, Emmanuel Lenain, later tweeted, “President Macron has decided to greet all his counterparts with a namaste, a graceful gesture that he has retained from his India visit in 2018.”
In US President Donald Trump’s recent state visit to India, his host, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, may not have been able to sell him on a new trade deal, but he did sell him on namaste. Soon after his return, Trump folded his hands to greet Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.
“I just got back from India. And I did not shake any hands there, and it was very easy because they go like this and Japan goes like this,” Trump said, demonstrating the Indian namaste and the Japanese bow. “They are ahead of the curve.”
After a number of visits to India, England’s Prince Charles too has now adopted namaste as his preferred style of greeting, although, as this video shows, old habits are hard to break.
It’s high time namaste went global, for it has been around in India forever. Namaste may arguably be the oldest form of greeting in active use on our planet. Earthen figures excavated by archeologists from the Indus Valley Civilization, dating back to 3,000 BC, show people in the namaste pose.
In contrast, the handshake only originated, like, yesterday – around the 9th century BC.
You can use it during your video conference
Because namaste involves no contact, it is also the perfect form of remote greeting. So tomorrow when you run what may be your 31st virtual meeting in this age of coronavirus, think about it. You can’t shake your colleagues’ hands or give them a hug as they enter the Zoom video conference room, but you can invite them all to build a bond with each other through a namaste. That’s what we are doing now in our team meetings at Mentora Institute.
Besides its no-contact benefits, there are other alluring possibilities in adopting namaste as your preferred greeting. A few years ago, as I was wrapping up a keynote to an audience of 600 executives, I felt a strong tug in my heart for the audience. They had listened to me for an hour, laughed and sighed at my stories, and, through their nods and note-taking, given a gracious reception to my ideas. I dearly wanted to hug each one of them at the end of my talk as they were applauding.
In 15 seconds, I was going to walk off stage and out of their lives forever, and I wanted to convey to each of them “I am grateful for the beautiful connection you and I made today.” How on Earth could I create this bond with 600 individuals before I rode away into the sunset?
Then, instinctively, my hands folded and the palms pressed against each other, my thumbs close to my heart. Namaste. I realized that I was doing what I would do growing up in India every time I walked into a room buzzing with friends and family. Stand still. Bow ever so slightly. Smile. Sweep the room with one namaste while looking affectionately into everyone’s eyes.
Namaste has this powerful quality of being inclusive. With namaste, you are building an instant bond with all who are gathered in your midst – not simply the one person right in front of you. It is physically impossible to achieve that with a kiss, a hug, a handshake, a high-five or an elbow bump, all of which are exclusively one-to-one. Namaste helps us to recognize that, like it or not, we are all connected; we rise and fall together. While we may choose to hug or bump elbows with just our favorites, when we offer a namaste, we are opening our heart to everyone, without discrimination. All of humanity is in our embrace.
What does ‘namaste’ even mean?
And that is not all. To understand namaste’s ultimate potential as a social bonding tool, we need to ask, “What does this strange-sounding word even mean?”
Within the word Namaste is encoded the whole philosophy of yoga. Here’s what I mean.
If I were to draw for you a line to represent the full spectrum of human nature, going from “terrible” to “terrific,” where would you place yourself on this line? Where would you place your favorite colleague? And your least favorite colleague?
Wherever you placed yourself, and wherever you placed these two colleagues, I offer that you are wrong. Because, you see, you are the whole spectrum, and so are they. Think of your worst quality, your worst behavior, your worst life moment. Now think of your best quality, your best behavior, your best life moment.
Yoga invites you to find that divine spark within yourself – the part of you that I call your “inner core”. When you operate from your inner core, you are centered, committed, connected and curious. You are able to step away from attachment, ego and insecurity to operate with wisdom and intention. You are at your full potential.
The more you discover this divine spark within your own self, the more you start seeing it all around you, in every throbbing heart, for it is innate in humanity. We all have it – we just need to work on awakening it and expressing it in all we do.
Namaste is a Sanskrit word that means “the divine spark in me bows to the divine spark in you.” In other words, it is saying, on some days, you or I may be tired, ill-behaved or deeply flawed; but today, in this moment, as we connect, I seek to offer you the best in me, and I strive to draw out the best in you.
It is now abundantly clear that we will win the war with coronavirus only if we’re all in this together. Rich have to unite with the poor, young with the old, conservatives with liberals, each nation with all others. We need to inspire not just the best in ourselves, but the best in others – including the people who, on a more average day, we may dismiss, dislike or denounce.
What better way to pursue this goal than to start and close every interaction by pressing palm against palm to gently affirm the untapped heroic potential that lies within everyone you engage with?
Because, as Gandhi once said, “The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems.”