Through the yogic lens, all of life is made up of three essential qualities. These qualities are called the gunas, and according to Sankhya philosophy, they are the three characteristics in which prakriti, or cosmic matter, can manifest. If you’ve never heard of the gunas before, it’s possible that this may sound a little abstract. But even if you’ve only been practicing yoga for a short while, chances are you’ve already observed the gunas in your body and mind without even realizing it.
In Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar offers some simple explanations to describe the three gunas: rajas, tamas and sattva. Rajas is the quality of activity and mobility that is responsible for movement, and an having an excess of rajas can lead to willful stubbornness. Tamas is the quality of inertia and form and is associated with delusion, obscurity and ignorance. Sattva is often considered a goal of one’s yoga practice, and is the quality of clarity, tranquility and truth-illumination.
When describing the gunas, I often feel like Goldie Locks in The Three Little Bears. It is tempting to say that rajas is “too much action” and that tamas is “too slow!” This leads me of course, to say that sattva is “just right!” implying that the other gunas are somehow “bad.”
However, it is important that we embrace all three gunas because they each have an essential role in our lives. As humans, tamas is built into our DNA. Without it, how would our muscles and bones maintain the oh-so-important density that supports us as we move through the world? Similarly, our minds might feel dominated by excess activity, or rajas, from time to time—especially when we’re feeling stressed or overworked. But if we did not have rajas, we would not be able to respond to the constant stimuli and activity of daily living.
So, while it’s tempting to want to “get rid” of tamas and rajas, we must respect their role in our lives and embrace them as useful with an inclination towards finding balance. In doing so, we can view the gunas as a complete and functional system which, when utilized wisely, brings us into balance. Even if cultivating sattva is the aim of our yoga practice, we can utilize the gunas in the following ways:
1. Intelligently choose your asana practice. Hatha yoga is a great way to check in with the body and bring balance to the gunas. Wisely choosing asanas that address your mental, emotional and physical states are an important part of this practice. The gunas come and go in different proportions throughout the courses of one’s day, week and even lifetime. If you’re heading to a yoga class because you feel imbalanced in some way, check-in to discover the cause of your imbalance. For example, if you’re feeling tired and physically unmotivated because of excessive thoughts or emotional stressors, an energetic and rajasic asana practice that challenges the body to move (rather than the mind) might bring about balance. However, if these rapidly moving thoughts are creating a lot of stress and anxiety, asanas that are too rajasic may be overly stimulating. In this case, a slower, tamasic asana practice (think: gentle or yin yoga) intended to ground and encourage the experience of support is an ideal way to bring about balance. When you’re feeling out-of-sorts, consult your intuition, consider your particular constitution, and honor the circumstances in the present-day circumstances in which you find yourself.
2. Be mindful of your diet. We all know the adage, “you are what you eat,” so you can imagine how eating too many tamasic (or dense) foods could lead you to feel heavy and lethargic. Likewise, think of foods that are rajasic and catalyze action in the body, such as“hot” foods that stimulate digestion, like ginger or spicy curry. A sattvic diet includes both tamasic and rajasic foods, but like an intelligently designed asana practice, the sattvic diet uses particular foods only when they lead a person’s energetic state into balance. Going back to the example of Goldilocks, we can think of it like this: on a cold winter’s day, warm porridge served with ginger and cinnamon might be “just right,” whereas on a hot summer day, cooler porridge served with a sprig of mint would be a better choice. Using discernment in the diet along with simply eating sattvic foods are easy ways of cultivating harmony in the body, mind and spirit.
3. Practice pranayama. Our breath has a profound impact on our physiological states. Using breath to address imbalances of the nervous system is a very effective and powerful way to cultivate sattva. For example, did you know that simply extending the length of your exhales beyond the length of your inhales stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system (the “calm down” mechanism in your body)? On the other hand, taking breaths where your inhales are longer than your exhales has a stimulating (or rajasic) effect. Depending on how your body is feeling (overly stimulated or overly inert), you can choose the breath that brings you closer to balance.
Can you recall moments of imbalance in which you felt “stuck” or overly stimulated? What techniques brought you closer to a sattvic state?