The Gunas, in Yoga, are not Arsenal fans, but energetic qualities. Understanding the Gunas can be a vitally important way to develop not just your yoga practice, but also your health, life, and relationships.
What are the Gunas?
The concept of the Gunas comes from Samkhya philosophy and is now prevalent in most Yoga traditions. Yoga teaches us that everything is made of energy. A table, or a tree are all forms of energy; each one vibrates at a speed that allows you to see, touch, and use it. Every thought, feeling, and experience you have also has a unique energy vibration that is imprinted into the body in the form of physical sensations and then hopefully released via breath.
The Gunas helps us make sense of this by ascribing three different qualities to energy:
Tamas, rajas, and sattva are energetic qualities that weave together to form the universe. Each has its own unique attributes
Why are the Gunas important?
On a personal level you can think of the Gunas as your energetic tendencies, or the habitual ways you respond to situations.
All three Gunas are present in every experience in a constantly shifting relationship with one another. One quality is always more present or dominant than the others, depending on what challenge you’re facing and how you respond to it. If you get angry, Rajas is dominant. If you emotionally shut down, Tamas has taken over. At the end of a yoga practice, you might feel bliss, and Sattva is in charge.
Understanding the Gunas is important because they can be used as a template for creating balance, both in Yoga and in life. Life is constantly disturbing the balance of the three Gunas. The key is to understand how they are imbalanced and work towards harmonising them.
In Patanjali’s Raja Yoga we are directed to be Sattvic to achieve success in meditation.
We can also relate the Gunas to the three main nadis (energy channels). Tamas corresponds to the Ida (left) channel, and Rajas to the Pingala (right) channel. The Sattvic state links to the Sushumna (central channel). Balancing the Gunas is thus a way of understanding the Tantric / Hatha Yoga aim of balancing left and right nadis to access the central channel for meditation.
From a modern point of view, we can think of the Gunas as reflecting the Autonomic Nervous System, in particular Dr Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Model. Rajas is the Sympathetic System (Fight or Flight), Tamas, the Dorsal Vagal (freeze response), and Sattva the Ventral Vagal (social engagement).
Tamas sometimes gets a bad rap, described as entropy, lethargy, and stagnation. But its energetic vibration, which is slow and thick, also stabilizes and focuses. It is the exhalation that calms and steadies. Tamas is also translated as “matter,” and it predominates in any object that is seemingly solid. In nature, Tamas destroys plant matter so it can be reabsorbed into the earth, supporting new life. In the body, Tamasic energy is abundant in the muscles, bones, and ﬂesh.
Tamas grounds us and helps us balance in yoga. In the mind, Tamasic energy is dominant when you feel depressed, or emotionally burdened. When Tamas is in charge, you won’t feel much enthusiasm for anything. You might ﬁnd yourself obsessing over something or beating yourself up for the choices you’ve made.
In Daoism, Tamas is Yin.
Balancing Excessive Tamas:
Tamas is low “charge” so any charging activity will help. Shaking unsticks Tamas, and so will dance, fast breathing practices, and physical exercise. Active meditations and chanting will be more helpful than passive seated meditation which might make you fall asleep. Meat, bread, processed foods are considered Tamasic foods. Switch it up for high nutrient, minimally prepared fruits and vegetables.
Rajas, or activity, gets things moving. It’s what makes seeds sprout, and flowers blossom. Rajas vibrates at a higher frequency than Tamas. It is the inhalation. It’s your motivation and charge. It’s also the energy of change, enthusiasm, passion, and the self-conﬁdence. Rajas energy is future-directed. It can show up as longing, yearning, or sorrow. Becoming agitated can cause Rajas to dominate, so can overexerting yourself, or disregarding the feelings and needs of others.
In Daoism, Rajas is Yang.
Balancing Excessive Rajas:
Rajas is charge so any discharging activity for excessive Rajas will help. Slow down. Encourage more Tamasic energy to ground you. Bring your attention into your feet and engage your muscles in strengthening exercises. Gentle Pranayama practices, such as alternate nostril breathing or Sitali breathing, can smooth out the nervous system, clear the mind, and cool down the body. Rajasic food is spicy or fried – limit these. Instead choose earthy foods, such as leafy greens to ground and balance you.
Sattva, or consciousness, is presence, truth, and compassionate action. It is clear, focused, calm, and receptive. In Yoga terms it is the gap after your exhale breath — the gateway to stillness when you are free from thoughts, worries, and judgments. In that moment you can listen to wisdom beyond the chatter of your mind. Sattva is the energy of meditation or whenever you turn your attention inward, away from the senses. It is also in flow, absorption, moving in harmony with your breath.
A Sattvic state is the goal of Yoga. Only when Tamas and Rajas are balanced do we attain it.
In Daoism, Sattva is the Dao.
Take care of yourself and develop a level of self-awareness that lets you know when your Gunas are imbalanced. Eat fresh foods, plant-based if possible and organic. Consume only that which creates harmony, whether food, media, or company. Get to sleep at a decent hour and awaken at dawn when your energy is most conducive to meditating. Spend time in nature. Enjoy regular moments of silence, have periods of time away from mental stimulation. Work selflessly for others.