What are the Gunas?

What are the Gunas?

“Gunas” are qualities or properties of life; the word “guna” is often translated as “thread,” as in the different threads that are woven together to make up reality. The three gunas are Sattva, Tamas, and Rajas. The gunas are present in everyone and everything in different proportions, including ourselves. You can feel a mix of the gunas or feel that one is dominant, depending on the moment you find yourself in.

Sattva is goodness, harmony, balance, construction, positivity, and peacefulness. When you are in a sattvic state, you may feel delight, happiness, peace, freedom, love, compassion, equanimity, gratitude, fearlessness, or selflessness.

Tamas is the opposite of Sattva. Tamas is darkness, destruction, chaos, imbalance, disorder, impurity, dullness, inactivity, inertia, and apathy. You are in a tamasic state of mind when you feel laziness, depression, helplessness, doubt, boredom, hurt, sadness, apathy, and grief.

Rajas is the state of movement. Rajas is excitement, energy, passion, action, confusion, and dynamism. You are in a rajasic state when you feel anger, euphoria, anxiety, irritation, worry, restlessness, or stress.

Despite what you may think at first glance, all three gunas are neither good nor bad. Looking at them another way, all three are BOTH good and bad. It’s a common goal in yoga to strive towards contentment, happiness, and peace at all times; many yoga websites and teachers will tell you that your goal “should” be to work towards a sattvic state and maintain it at all times. This is a hugely unrealistic goal and a good way to end up beating yourself up all the time.

Tamasic states, or feeling heavy, down, or sad, are an inevitable part of life. Feeling rajasic, whether it’s through feeling angry, irritated, or restless, is a sign that you have something to deal with or manage – it tells you that you need to take action. Experiencing periods of both tamas and rajas will help you appreciate the sattvic state all the more – you need the down to appreciate the up. The problem is when you get stuck in a tamasic or rajasic state – that’s a good time to think about how to bring yourself back to sattva.

This is not to say that working towards sattva on an ongoing basis is a bad goal; the warning here is to not expect your life to suddenly be sunshine and rainbows 24/7. Instead, think about working towards a feeling of balance and positivity as your baseline. There will still be things that upset you or make you angry, but the more you work on finding a core of balance, the easier it will be for you to work through and let go of situations that make you feel tamasic or rajasic.

The interplay of the three gunas determines the character of a person or thing. Changing the balance of gunas will be a challenge; you need force from rajas (action) and you will face inertia or resistance from tamas (apathy). But there are steps you can take to balance the gunas in your body and your life. Start with asking yourself one question:

In your daily life, what do you take in through your five senses?

The more you expose yourself to the qualities of one specific guna, the more that guna will be present in your being. This is applicable in every part of your life:

  • The people you surround yourself with
  • The tv shows you watch and/or the video games you play
  • The books and news that you pay attention to
  • The food you eat
  • The exercise/physical practice that you have (or lack thereof)
  • The space you live & work in

Not all of us have a choice in all of these aspects, but there are things you can do to support a more sattvic frame of mind and help reduce tamasic and rajasic tendencies. The first step, which is essential to managing your ongoing frame of mind, is to understand the things in your environment that bring about an unsettled or depressed frame of mind. Think about some of the following questions in your daily life:

  • How do you feel after eating different kinds of foods? For example: grains, meat, vegetables, sugary or salty processed foods?
  • How do the people in your life make you feel? Drained, energized, positive, negative?
  • How do you feel after watching a comedy? Drama? Crime show? Remember, there is no wrong answer – what makes one person feel down may make another feel energized or stimulated.
  • How do you feel after reading the news? Do you focus on the good or the bad? How does that make your body feel?
  • Do you get a good rest in your home space? Do you feel calm when you come home?
  • Does your physical practice or exercise make you feel energized or exhausted?

Understanding the answers to these questions can then help you think about what would bring about a more sattvic state of mind for you. A big thing to remember here is that a “sattvic” action for one person who is naturally high-energy and has some anxiety, may actually be a tamasic action for another person who is naturally low-energy and struggles with depression. There is no action that is right for everyone. In order to start to take action, the big question to answer is: do you want to feel more energized or more grounded? Once you know that, you can think about some of the following points:

  • How can you make your home space more energizing or grounding (and therefore more sattvic for you)? How can you ensure you get good rest in your space?
  • What kind of shows/news/books/games make you feel good?
  • What people make you feel the best?
  • What food makes you feel the best? Some simple guidelines are: Tamasic food is usually heavy, refined, or processed foods; Rajasic food is usually fried, spicy, sugary, and/or caffeinated; Sattvic food is usually whole, fresh foods.

Thinking about the elements of your life that bring on tamas, rajas, and sattva can be a helpful way to find balance in your day-to-day. Remember that this quest for balance is a journey, and you’re not going to “accomplish” it immediately. Be kind to yourself, and let yourself explore along the way.