Gunā. Sattva. Rajas. Tamas. Sound like gibberish to you? Give us seven minutes of your time and we’ll explore the ins and outs of these ancient concepts and how you can use them on your mat and in your life! Set your timer, take a look, and then let us know in the comments which one you think guides you and why!
Minute 1: Need-To-Know Vocabulary
There is nothing on the earth, in heaven, or even among the gods, that is free from these prakrti-born gunās. ~Krishna in the Bhagavad Gītā
Gunā translates literally from Sanskrit to ‘strand’. The Bhagavad Gītā and Yoga Sutrās describe the gunas as the three building blocks of nature (also known as Prakrti, but that’s another article). They say that these three composites build up everything that exists in the world we know, and that cultivating a balance between the three in our own lives will bring increased health and happiness. They each have their own positive aspects as follows:
Rajas. The gunā of passion, movement and activity. Without Rajasic energy we wouldn’t have the drive to pursue and achieve our goals. Rajas is imbalanced when your passion runs away with you and causes distress and conflict in your life.
Tamas. This is the gunā that balances darkness, inactivity and inertia. In the natural world, tamas is the gravity that holds us all to the ground, but over time it also contributes to age and decay. In our minds a healthy balance of tamas allows us to follow a focussed train of thought, but too much of it and we become slow and sluggish.
Sattva. The last gunā concerns itself with joy and happiness. It’s the light that shines on the main characters in Touched By An Angel. Too much sattvic energy would dissolve all motivation, replacing it with a euphoric happiness. Not enough sattva manifests itself in depression and unhappiness.
People who pursue samādhi (liberation or freedom) seek to remove the other two gunās that lead to attachment, but for those of us who are not Buddhist monks, we need to balance the three in order to live a healthy and productive life.
Minute 4: Using The Gunās In Your Practice
We’ve established that all nature is composed of these three ‘strands’ weaving together around us to create the tapestry that we call human experience. Once we learn to recognise which parts of the tapestry are rajas, which are tamas and which are sattva, we can start using them to our benefit.
Have you ever heard a teacher say that the hardest pose of the day was showing up to class? Well that’s your first chance to look at the balance of your gunās in the room. Are you the person that jumps into the room with a warm sattvic hello to everyone? Or does tamas lead you to lay down your mat in the back corner hoping no one will notice you?
Then the class starts and you start really getting into the flow of things, until the well-meaning teacher decides we’re going to take ten breaths in Chair Pose. Do you grit your teeth and muscle through it in the spirit of rajas? Are you the person that focusses on the lift of the heart (sattva), or with extra awareness on rooting your feet into the ground (tamas)? A good way to assess which gunā is leading you through the practice is to ask, “Am I pushing up, down, or forward?” By paying attention in this way, as a practitioner or a teacher, we can use what we discover to move closer to that balance we talked about earlier.
What does balance look like? In an ideal world it would be hard to identify which way you are pushing, and your poses would look calm, strong and still. Of course this is the same world where we get new yoga clothes shipped to us for free every week and we all have the perfect yoga body, so we can’t all be so lucky.
Minute 6: Gunās For Life
As famous dead guy and Greek philosopher once said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” (Stephen Schwartz later modernised this idea in Pocahontas by penning the lyric, “What I love most about rivers is: you can’t step in the same river twice.”) This is directly applicable to the balance of the gunās in our lives.
At any given moment our dominating gunā can change, depending on where we are, what we’re doing, the company we keep, even the time of day! Of course, when one looks at a stretch of a few years of one’s life, you can often find a dominating gunā for that phase of time as well. For example, we may spend three rajasic years at college, studying hard, working two jobs and trying to fit in a social life. Follow that with a few years of tamas-like relaxed freedom, working a low-pressure job and recovering from the college phase. Then you could land a well-paid job, with mandatory vacation, benefits and travel opportunities in a sattvic style. That is until you’re made redundant and the hard work takes over again and we’re back to rajas.
None of this is bad, in fact the negative parts of our life often lead us to change we ultimately need. The gunās help us know what to look for so that we can move through these changes in our lives more gracefully. “Am I pushing up, down or forward?” The challenge for us then is, can we push less in one direction and find balance in our lives?
Got Another 7 Minutes?
That’s about all we can learn about the gunās in seven minutes, but there’s so much more to them than this! For example, different foods, mantras and even āsanas or sequences can be tied to one energy or another. In the meantime, if you’re hungry for a bit more philosophy check out our columns on the eight limbs of yoga or perhaps the yamas and niyamas!