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Three’s a Charm: Understand the Balance of the 3 Gunas

Yogis are awfully fond of numbered lists and three's a charm when it comes to understanding the gunas and how to balance them.

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Yogis are awfully fond of numbered lists, and threes play a major role in their theology, philosophy, and metaphysics. Three’s a charm when it comes to understanding your gunas and how to balance them.

Your yoga practice most likely goes through guna periods, shifting back and forth between tamas and rajas, with every now and then—if you’re lucky—a sattvic day. Dedicate one practice to gunas. Be aware, in every pose you do, how each of the gunas expresses itself. Determine the dominant guna and encourage its compatriots sitting on the sidelines to come and join the game.

The Sanskrittri is etymologically related to the English word “three.” Take the tri-murti, or “three forms,” of the Absolute—the deities Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Or the tri-loka, or “three worlds,” of hell, earth, and heaven. Finally, there’s the tri-guna, or “three strands”—forces that compose the substance of the material world.

It’s thought that the whole universe is composed of differing proportions of gunas. While they’re described as separate entities, it’s better to think of the gunas as categories of waves spread over a wide spectrum, like light or sound. At one end of the spectrum is tamas (darkness), which is inertia or heaviness. Its polar opposite is sattva, which can’t be translated precisely but is defined variously as “being,” “existence,” “spiritual essence,” “goodness,” and “consciousness.” Sattva is the aspect of matter closest in nature to the divine Self. The motive force behind these two is rajas (colored), which is raw energy or passion.

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The gunas are used to characterize and understand natural objects or phenomena. For example, a chunk of granite is predominantly tamasic, a tornado rajasic, and sunlight sattvic. But what’s interesting in yoga is that human consciousness is also considered a material process. This means that our transient moods and more permanent personalities can generally be characterized according to the gunas. You’ve probably occasionally felt tamasic—that is, dark and heavy—and you must know a few intemperate human tornados or rajasics who can never sit still and concentrate. You might even know someone who’s remarkably calm and light or insightful—most likely your sattvic yoga teacher.

The gunas can also apply to our daily practice. Some days we’re as ponderous as a boulder; other days we’re revved up. Then there are those rare days when we sattvically float through our practice. Traditional texts suggest we cultivate our sattvic nature, at the expense of tamas and rajas. But I believe it’s better to cultivate a balance of the three gunas, so that, simultaneously, we’re tamasically grounded to the earth, rajasically passionate about our work, and sattvically reaching for our goal, which is the realization of our authentic Self.

About the Author

Richard Rosen, who teaches in Oakland and Berkeley, California, has been writing for Yoga Journal since the 1970s.