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Understanding the Gunas Can Help You Find Balance and Insight

Learn how to regulate these three energetic qualities with food, movement, meditation, and more.

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When we think about energy, we often think about the physical and mental types—the oomph that helps us move through a vinyasa or focus on a task. It’s easy to identify when these energies are lagging, and most of the time we know how to replenish or balance them: We eat healthy foods, rest, get out into nature, connect with the people we love, commit to a consistent asana practice, or let go of some questionable habits.


But energy is more than what fuels the body or the mind. Many ancient traditions, such as yoga, Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism—plus modern physics—teach that everything in the universe is energy. A table, a computer, and a bicycle 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 on the wave of the breath. This non-tangible energy can best be understood by delving into one aspect of yoga’s subtle body anatomy—the gunas.

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The gunas (Sanskrit for strands or qualities) are energetic forces that weave together to form the universe and everything in it. There are three gunas, each with its own unique attributes: tamas (stability), rajas (activity), and sattva (consciousness). It might help to think of gunas as tendencies: the habitual ways you respond to any situation that arises.

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, most important, how you respond to it. When you overreact because someone cut you off in traffic, rajas becomes dominant. If you emotionally shut down to avoid having a difficult conversation, that’s a sign that tamas has taken the reins. As you emerge from a beautiful restorative practice, you may experience the sattvic quality of joy.

Understanding the gunas is important because while the challenges of our everyday lives can disturb their delicate balance, these energies, entwined in an intricate dance, create all that we are, all that we see, and all that remains unseen. Tamas provides our foundation; rajas gives it vitality and breath; sattva imbues it with consciousness and compassionate awareness.

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Tamas, or stability, gets a bad rap, often being described solely as the force of 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—that table, laptop, or bicycle. In nature, tamas destroys plant matter so it can be reabsorbed into the earth and nourish new life. In your body, tamasic energy is prevalent in the muscles, bones, and flesh; in asana practice it grounds your feet and helps you balance. In your mind, tamasic energy is dominant when you feel depressed, or when a heavy emotional burden makes it hard to get out of bed. When tamas is prevalent, you aren’t able to muster much enthusiasm for anything, including your practice. You might find yourself obsessing over a relationship gone wrong or beating yourself up for the choices you’ve made.

Balancing Tamas:

Shaking your hands as you lift your arms overhead several times will get tamas unstuck, and so will moving to music or a round or two of Sun Salutations or Kapalabhati Pranayama (skull-shining breath, which alternates short, explosive exhalations with slightly longer, passive inhalations). Seated meditation might cause you to nod off, but walking or chanting meditations work well to lift energy and focus the mind. Ayurvedic practitioners suggest staying away from tamasic foods, such as meat, garlic, onions, and breads as well as leftovers and choosing fresh local fruits and vegetables, minimally prepared.

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Rajas, or activity, is what gets things moving. In nature, rajas allows seeds to sprout, flowers to germinate, and babies to be born. The vibration of rajas is at a higher frequency than tamas. It is the inhalation; it’s what gets you up in the morning and keeps you going all day. It is also the energy of change, unbridled enthusiasm, passion, and the self-confidence to get stuff done. Rajas energy is future-directed and often manifests as longing, yearning, or sorrow. On the mat, rajas is what moves you from pose to pose or lifts your arms up over your head. Becoming agitated with your work or relationships can cause rajas to dominate, and so can overexerting yourself in your practice or barging into situations without regard to what others feel or need.

Balancing Rajas:

Slow down, slow down, slow down. On your mat, encourage more of the deliberate energy of tamas to dampen down the flightiness of rajas. Bring your attention into your feet and engage your muscles in a few standing poses before coming down onto your back for your favorite relaxing poses. Gentle pranayama practices, such as Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) or Sitali (cooling breath; see page 42), can smooth out the nervous system, clear the mind, and cool down the body. To tame rajas, Ayurveda recommends sitting down at every meal, staying away from spicy or fried foods, and eating plenty of antioxidant-rich foods, like leafy greens.

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Sattva, or consciousness, is radiant presence, unadulterated truth, and compassionate, selfless action. The quality of sattva is clear, focused, calm, and receptive. It is the fully formed flower, the beauty of a sunset, the bounty from the garden. Internally, it is in the gap you experience after the exhalation and before the inhalation comes again—the pause where you are free from thoughts, worries, and judgments, just for the moment, so that you can listen and act more from your higher intellect and less from ego. You experience sattva on the mat primarily in meditation or whenever you commit to going inward, listening to your body, and moving in sync with your breath. Cultivating sattvic harmony is the goal of yoga and of the natural world. It can shine forth only when tamas and rajas are balanced, which is a constant dance of the energies—moment by moment, as we notice how we meet each experience that presents itself.

Cultivating Sattva: 

The Bhagavad Gita pretty clearly tells us that if we want to have a more sattvic life, we have to take better care of ourselves. Eat fresh foods (a plant-based diet that’s organic and local, as much as possible). Get to sleep at a decent hour and awaken at dawn because, according to Ayurveda, that is when your energy is most conducive to meditating (do it daily). Spend time alone in nature if you can. Commit to being in silence (in the modern world, that also means putting aside your electronics). Practice devotion (bhakti yoga) and provide openhearted service for the benefit of all beings.

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