The 3 Gunas of Nature

In the philosophy of Yoga, all matter in the universe arises from the fundamental substrate called Prakriti. From this ethereal Prakriti the three primary gunas (qualities) emerge creating the essential aspects of all nature—energy, matter and consciousness. These three gunas are tamas (darkness), rajas (activity), and sattva (beingness).All three gunas are always present in all beings and objects surrounding us but vary in their relative amounts. We humans have the unique ability to consciously alter the levels of the gunas in our bodies and minds. The gunas cannot be separated or removed in oneself, but can be consciously acted upon to encourage their increase or decrease. A guna can be increased or decreased through the interaction and influence of external objects, lifestyle practices and thoughts.

Tamas is a state of darkness, inertia, inactivity and materiality. Tamas manifests from ignorance and deludes all beings from their spiritual truths. To reduce tamas avoid tamasic foods, over sleeping, over eating, inactivity, passivity and fearful situations. Tamasic foods include heavy meats, and foods that are spoiled, chemically treated, processed or refined.

Rajas is a state of energy, action, change and movement. The nature of rajas is of attraction, longing and attachment and rajas strongly binds us to the fruits of our work. To reduce rajas avoid rajasic foods, over exercising, over work, loud music, excessive thinking and consuming excessive material goods. Rajasic foods include fried foods, spicy foods, and stimulants.

Sattva is a state of harmony, balance, joy and intelligence. Sattva is the guna that yogi/nis achive towards as it reduces rajas and tamas and thus makes liberation possible. To increase sattva reduce both rajas and tamas, eat sattvic foods and enjoy activities and environments that produce joy and positive thoughts. Sattvic foods include whole grains and legumes and fresh fruits and vegetables that grow above the ground. All of the yogic practices were developed to create sattva in the mind and body. Thus, practicing yoga and leading a yogic lifestyle strongly cultivates sattva.

The mind’s psychological qualities are highly unstable and can quickly fluxuate between the different gunas. The predominate guna of the mind acts as a lens that effects our perceptions and perspective of the world around us. Thus, if the mind is in rajas it will experience world events as chaotic, confusing and demanding and it will react to these events in a rajasic way.

All gunas create attachment and thus bind one’s self to the ego. “When one rises above the three gunas that originate in the body; one is freed from birth, old age, disease, and death; and attains enlightenment” (Bhagavad Gita 14.20). While the yogi/nis goal is to cultivate sattva, his/her ultimate goal is to transcend their misidentification of the self with the gunas and to be unattached to both the good and the bad, the positive and negative qualities of all life.

Comments 20

  1. Garlic and ginger root, spicy curry, and cinnamon are rajasic due to there spicyness? What about carrots, beets, turnips; vegetables that are not spicy and grow underground? Fermentation counts as spoiling, processing and refining placing alchohol and kambucha in the tamas category, or no? How about culturing like cheese and yogurt? Seeds and nuts?

  2. Have you ever looked into Ayureda? I won’t go into what Ayurveda is, however, if you do a little research and learn about what that is, you can learn about what constitution you are dominant in. (There are 3 which you can figure out by doing a simple survey)
    Anyway, depending on your constitution, or dosha, you can learn about what kinds of foods to avoid so you are not aggravated and energetic.

    I think basically though, just stay in tune with your body…EXPERIENCE what it feels like to eat these foods. How is your mind and energy affected? Don’t just eat heavy meats because you read so… eat heavy meats and perhaps feel why it’s not the best for you.
    Everything in moderation too. This is important.


    1. Everything in moderation…’? Surely that must include moderation itself which I interpret as periodic moderation,
      excess and denial, or am I missing something?

  3. Great website! I am teaching a workshop this weekend on the Gunas and elevating Sattva so was looking for reliable, well thought out explanations and came upon this site. Cool thing is I took a workshop with Tim Burgin about 5 years ago taught by Yoganand when he was in S. Carolina. I think it was “Asanas as Spiritual Doorways”. Anyway I am happy to have found this site and look forward to discovering more…. thanks Tim!! I love Kripalu and Pranakriya yoga as I feel it is based on the truest aspects of Yoga as a spiritual path.

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  4. Tamas dont have to do with what you eat, many people arguing here that curd and cheese are equally fermented and spoiled as alcohol. Similarly, carrots or vegetables grow underground so they are bad. I don’t think its true, eating carrot, cheese, curd, or vegetables is not harmful, infact they are essestial. Some times in some dosha they can also be bad. But in my opinion tamsikta is a prakriti. And it is not formed by eating, rather it is relative. For something that lives in darkness, light can be tamasik, someone that lives in brightness dark can be tamasik. It is a nature and nature is relative.

  5. I’m just starting out on my yoga teacher training journey and I found this piece really easy to read, highly informative and just what I was looking for. So thank you. And Namaste x

  6. “The wise see clearly that all action is the work of the gunas. Knowing that which is above the gunas, they enter into union with Me.’ -B. Gita 14-19

    Wonderful and thoughtful explanation of the gunas, Timothy. And your response to ‘exploring’ foods to experience the gunas is profound. Thank you for your openness and compassion. The Divine Mother has guided me, became my Guru in visions/dreams and Her guidance has no words to describe its impact. Kriya yoga is the path to God. But we must surrender what we have accepted and ‘think’ we are. Thank you for your energy kind Sir.
    Om KaliMa!

  7. I find your notion of the guna misleading as it states that yogis focuse purely on sattva to attain a pure state, when it is clear that a balance of the gunas is more appropriate to lead to a higher state…. a person focused purely on sattva will simply live in a fairy wonderland and be out of balance with the nature of life.

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  8. I have been finding your articles, TB, so helpful deep, accessible, etc. Thank you so much for taking the time to publish your work!!

  9. Thanks for the useful discussion of the three gunas of Prakriti. I think the explanation of balancing the gunas is essential even if we stuggle for a sattvic quality. So useful information as I try to include the theory of yoga into what I have experiendced of yin/yang and how to understand the different sides of the mind, It is great to study more and I am now attending a yoga instrutor course that is so interesting and challeging.

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