The concept of “The Three Gunas” comes from the Bhagavad-Gita (a Hindu scripture that discusses the nature of reality and consciousness). It states that there are three gunas, or “threads,” that hold this world together. They weave through every object, animate and inanimate, in the natural world. These “threads” have different aptitudes, qualities, and energies, and their ratio within any-thing (person, place, object, etc.) informs the nature of that thing. Sattva, rajas, and tamas are the names of three gunas.
In Yoga, we look at the three gunas (among other things) to understand and move through our struggles, challenges, and limitations. In Ayurveda, we look at the three doshas (among other things), to do that same thing. Yoga and Ayurveda are linked, like sister sciences, but they are not exactly the same. Cut from the same cloth, they both focus on achieving the same ultimate goal: relieving the body and mind of dis-ease and suffering. In this article, we will offer a short overview of what the three gunas are, how you can use a basic understanding of them to care for yourself, and in what ways they are connected to the three doshas that we so often talk about.
The Three Gunas
Ancient Hindu texts and philosophies of creation tell us that sattva, rajas, and tamas are necessary for the creation and preservation of the universe, and that they are also necessary for maintaining our own psychobiological functions. Sattva wakes us up in the morning and enables us to think. Rajas allows our thoughts, feelings, and emotions to inspire us and move us in creative ways. Tamas makes us feel tired and heavy, so we know when it’s time to go to sleep.
Sattva is pure, transparent, and harmonious. Sattva is what allows us to see Truth and achieve Higher Knowledge. It isn’t Enlightenment itself, but it is the quality that must be predominant within us on our way there. Sattva promotes balance, joy, beauty, inspiration, health, wellbeing, contentment. Developing sattva is a key component of Yoga. It requires us to become unselfish; to be more concerned with our present-moment decisions and actions than on the actual fruits of our labor. It also requires that our actions and our perspectives be life-giving.
It is in the realm of sattva to be content with what you have, to be humble and grateful, and to appreciate even the little things. To not desire more than you need, and to give and receive gracefully. Sattva is considered “potential energy” in physics.
Rajas is the energy of action and change. Unlike sattva, it is all about the fruits of our labor. Rajas wants to have what it wants, when it wants, how it wants; it is desire, yearning, passion, attraction, movement, determination. It can prompt anxiety, worry, greed, stress, fear, and chaos; and, it can also prompt courage, euphoria, pleasure, and excitement.
Because rajas is movement, it is what can propel us towards sattva (spiritual understanding) or towards tamas (ignorance and delusion). It is in the realm of rajas to be desirous or to try and visualize or manifest a particular outcome, goal, or reward. Therefore, the New Age concept of working with the “Law of Attraction” could be considered rajas, as it attempts to will something into being, rather than sweetly surrendering to what is, exactly as it is, how it is, when it is—which is the practice of sattva. Nothing is ever enough for rajas; it needs to keep changing, moving, shifting. Rajas is considered “kinetic energy” in physics.
Tamas is darkness, inertia, and decay. It obscures things, brings about ignorance and delusion, and is likened to qualities such as: laziness, disgust, depression, shame, grief, dependency, addiction, apathy, confusion, and sadness. To be stuck in tamas would be unpleasant, to say the least. Tamas is considered “inertia” in physics.
According to Yoga, we operate from all three of the gunas at various times. Unless one achieves a state outside of the gunas, or Enlightenment (and stays there), these three energies are present. The teachings of Yoga show us how and why to lead a sattva-dominant life—so that we can be happy, healthy, vital, and on the path towards our own Liberation. A few things that we can do on a regular basis to cultivate more sattva are:
Meditation, clearing the mind and emptying it of any ideas on how the moment should look different or that you need to be different in order to meditate, is a powerful way to start cultivating sattva. To start meditating, you can sit comfortably in a chair with your feet on the earth, or sit comfortably on the floor in a cross-legged position with your spine straight and arms resting gently by your sides. Then, you can close your eyes and begin to find your breath. Notice the sensations of the breath flowing in and out of your nose, and all the areas the breath reaches throughout your body. Notice, as you breathe, what happens to your shoulders, back, hips, etc. — are things beginning to relax and soften? Do your hips feel stiff and sore? Without judging what you notice, just notice, and keep noticing and breathing and noticing and breathing.
Practice focusing on your breath and physical sensations. This helps you stay anchored in the present moment. After a few minutes of slow breathing, see if you can allow your mind to soften, too. Let whatever thoughts arise, arise. Be with whatever occurs for you in your present moment. You can, after a few minutes of this, try to continue meditating with your eyes open. Just noticing what is around you. What you see, what you smell, hear, taste, and feel. Let yourself be fully immersed in the moment, without needing to change it or fix it or make it any different than it is. The more you do this, the easier it will become. The mind will most likely think thoughts even after years of doing this practice regularly. Remember not to judge yourself or your thoughts; just notice, and let them be. Watch your thoughts, observe them as they happen, and let that be enough; because, truly, it is enough, and you are enough, too.
Suggestion: meditate anywhere from 5-50 minutes every day.
Eating more sattvic foods can help bring the mind and body into a more sattvic state. Some sattvic foods include: mango, pomegranate, figs, peaches, pears, rice, tapioca, blue corn, sweet potato, lettuce, parsley, sprouts, yellow squash, mung beans, yellow lentils, kidney beans, lima beans, milk, fresh homemade yogurt, no meat or fish.
Synching your circadian rhythm with nature, by going to sleep early (not too long after the sun sets) and wake up early (just around sunrise). Try to avoid screen time first thing in the morning, and right before bed. Give yourself time to decompress before you sleep (read a book, take a walk, sit in silence) and before you start your day in the morning.
Leading a balanced, sattvic life, that includes: spending plenty of time in nature, practicing good hygiene, and staying away from, or having minimal amounts of, alcohol, caffeine, garlic, onion, and sex. Abstaining from those things for periods of time can help us reflect on what’s behind our cravings for them and how we can make healthier choices that aren’t causing us to lean on them daily or on a frequent basis—especially for those of us in the west who can’t start our day without a cup of coffee.
Doing regular acts of selfless service, or Karma Yoga. This helps us get out of our own heads, become humble and grateful and attentive to the world around us. Selfless service can come in many forms. It can come from making time out of your day to honestly and authentically check in with another person and listen (really listen) to what they tell you when you ask how they are. Hold space, inquire, let them share and feel supported. Notice what comes up for you as you do this. Watch your mind if it tells you that you aren’t any good at listening, or you should fix their problems, or that you don’t have problems, too. Come back to the breath, come back to the moment, and listen (really listen) to what they have to say. Give your attention to the person in front of you, to the moment, to the part of you that doesn’t need to prove anything, or change anything, or fix anything.
It can also look like going to the food bank or a local charity and devoting some of your time. It could even look like gardening, with slow attention, care, and affection for your plants. It can be anything that involves reaching out or lending a hand to another person (or many people, or the earth) without expecting recognition, or seeking validation or approval, in the process. Just genuinely devoting some of your time and energy to care for something other than yourself. If you’re a parent, you’re most likely doing this all the time.
Understand the Gunas in relation to the Doshas
In Ayurveda, there isn’t an extensive guideline for how the gunas interact with our wellbeing and our constitution, and there isn’t a direct correspondence, per se. However, the relationship between the three Gunas in the Yogic Sciences and the three Doshas in Ayurvedic Science is as follows:
“Sattva is present in Pitta through knowledge and understanding; in vata as clarity and lightness, and in kapha as forgiveness and love. Rajas is active and hyper and is present in vata and pitta and virtually absent in kapha. Tamas is heaviness and lethargy in kapha, aggressiveness and competitiveness in pitta, and is almost absent in vata—and if it is present, it manifests as confusion.”
“Basically, vata is about 75% rajas, 20% sattva and 5% tamas. Pitta is about 50% sattva, 45% rajas, and up to 5% tamas. Kapha is maybe 75% tamas and 20% sattva, with little to no rajas at all.”
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All quotes from “The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies” by Vasant Lad. “The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies” by Vasant Lad, 1998.
“Yoga & Ayurveda,” by David Frawley, 1999.