Understanding The Three Gunas: Tamas, Rajas & Sattva

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The three gunas represent the fine balance in our everyday energy and how we live out our lives. 

Tamas, rajas, and sattva make up the gunas and are stability, activity and consciousness. They are the underlying tendencies of all of our experiences. 

They also contribute to how we respond to different situations and how we feel. The trick is to get a good balance of the three and not to favor one too much. In this article, we’ll look at;

  • How to balance the three gunas
  • Samkhya philosophy
the three gunas represented on an orange image

Gunas Definition

Guna translates to “quality, peculiarity, attribute, property” but it is more commonly referred to as “thread” or that which reality is weaved of. 

Tamas, rajas and sattva are the strands woven together to create the gunas.

Philosophical Roots

The gunas are rooted in the philosophical system of yoga called Samkhya which means number or enumeration. The ancient teachings of Samkhya say the purpose of life is to acquire knowledge and experience of the Self (purusha)

Samkhya is built upon the dual nature that says that reality is made up if of purusha and prakriti which is part of Vedic Indian philosophy. It is important to note that this dualistic system is not about mind-body dualism but about the difference between Self and matter.

  • What is Purusha?Purusha is the knower or the Self and is not an object. Purusha can be thought of as pure consciousness, the eternal spirit, or the Absolute. Purusha is beyond perception.
  • What is Prakriti?  – Prakriti encompasses all that is known and is a balance of the three gunas. Prakriti is all that is experienced in the psychological, material, intangible, and tangible realms. It can be thought of as nature, the mind, and emotions.

According to Samkhya when a person dies, their consciousness will live in a new body. This is based on the idea of rebirth.

A yoga practice is said to help develop consciousness so that when moving to a new body, consciousness is re-manifested in the form of someone more enlightened.

an illustration of the three gunas

What are the gunas?

“This universe consists of the three gunas – sattva, rajas, and tamas. The three gunas are in Brahman, but It is Itself untainted by them.”

There are three gunas that are always at play within our lives. One tends to be dominant at any one time, depending on the situation or obstacle at hand. The gunas represent how we respond to an event at the moment it happens, and each has its own unique characteristics. 

Let’s take a look at tamas, rajas, and sattva, which make up the three gunas.

The First Guna: Tamas

  • Tamas means darkness but is associated within the gunas as ignorance, dullness, laziness, lethargy, dullness, stagnation, illusion, inertia, or apathy.

Rest assured, while tamas doesn’t sound great; it’s not all bad. Energetically tamas is often referred to as slow or thick, and it is a stabilizing or grounding force.

Tamas is associated with matter and therefore refers to those parts of you that are physical such as your muscles and bones. Mentally, tamas is the state of being depressed or detached. 

It is when you feel lethargic and energetically depleted. When tamas is the dominant state, you may be in a phase of burnout or grief. Tamas is associated with the past or being stuck. 

If tamas is dominant, we will most likely feel unmotivated, depressed, and stagnant.

a stagnant body of water with leaves in

How To Balance Tamas

Gentle movement and pranayama practices are a great way to cope with the depletion of tamas while getting things moving. Walking meditations or modified sun salutations are a great way to move the body without over-exertion. 

Focusing on the inhalation rather than the exhalation can aid energy, and back bending postures such as bridge pose or cobra pose can be helpful for opening the chest and front body to aid breath and promote feelings of energy.

The Second Guna: rajas

  • Rajas means passion, and it is often associated with activity, desire, energy, emotion, forward momentum, and sorrow.  

Somewhat opposite of tamas, rajas is the energetic quality of getting things done. 

It is the thing within us that fosters change, new beginnings, enthusiasm, confidence, and passion.  Rajas is future-oriented and a product of manifesting. This sounds great, right? Well, just like tamas isn’t all bad, rajas isn’t all good. In excess, rajas can be agitating and cause you to overwork or push yourself too far.

When we are rajasic, we may experience passion and a sense of being hyperactive.

a silhouette of a man jumping from cliff to cliff

How To Balance Rajas

If tamas causes you to have the breaks permanently on then, it is rajas that has its foot forcefully on the accelerator. 

Bringing mindfulness and attention into your life and your yoga practice will help to dampen down rajas. In your yoga sessions, try slow-flow practices that help you to burn off a little of that excess energy while maintaining deliberate and attentive movements and transitions. 

Pranayama practices such as lengthening the exhale will have a calming effect on the nervous system and be useful for balancing rajas. Guided meditation practices and yoga nidra will be helpful to keep the mind focused while prioritising a state of rest and relaxation.

The Third Guna: sattva

  • Sattva which can be translated as honesty is also known as consciousness, goodness, harmony, knowledge, compassion, positivity,  selfless action, truth, serenity, balance and peacefulness.

Sattva is associated with the present moment, and it is the most desirable quality of the three gunas.

The energetic quality of sattva is focused and calm. It is the state when we are filled with clarity and are receptive. Some refer to sattva as the pause between the inhale and the exhale or the moments when we are free from ego and anxieties.

When we experience sattva we may feel harmonious and clarity.

a woman with a white t shirt with her hands in a prayer pose

The Balance of Sattva

In your yoga practice, sattva shows up when you are present with yourself and practicing with attentiveness and awareness. It becomes a practice of moment-to-moment attention. The mind, body, and breath will be effortlessly in sync. 

Be in the moment with your practice and choose a meditation, pranayama or asana practice that feels right. Mindful, introspective practices such as silent meditation, yin or hatha will be a great addition to your day.

How the three gunas come together

We are never just in one guna “state”. All three gunas are always dancing in a balance and one quality is usually a little (or a lot) more dominant than the others. We need them all.

A great way to observe the gunas in your practice is to keep a journal of how you feel after different styles of yoga, meditation or pranayama and even the times of day that you practice.

You might also choose to reflect on other things in your life, such as relationships and work. Many ayurvedic sources note that balancing the gunas can be benefited by a proper diet, so prioritizing fresh fruits and vegetables will be beneficial while limiting processed foods. Looking into your diet, lifestyle, and spiritual practices may be helpful in balancing the three gunas.

Learning to reflect on how you feel as well as what your guna “states” are can help you to be a little more in control of them and how you respond in different situations. 

Knowing how to embody and recognize different states is a big part of the spiritual path. It also stops us from becoming attached to one state – it is not about being sattvic all of the time; otherwise, we would likely be disappointed! 

At first, the process of looking at the gunas will be almost entirely unconscious but gradually you will notice it in the things around you and eventually within yourself. Only then will you be able to manipulate the balancing energies of the gunas.

a woman journalling on her bed

The Gunas in the Bhagavad Gita

Considered one of the most revered Hindu texts, the Bhagavad Gita is a section from the Mahabarata – an Indian epic. It is believed to have been written between 500 and 200 BCE and was originally written in Sanskrit. 

The Bhagavad Gits is a dialogue between the warrior Arjuna and his charioteer, Lord Krishna.  Located on the battlefield, Krishna explains that Arjuna who is uncertain about his role in the war, should fulfil his role in the battle and therefore his dharma.

Lord Krishna tells Arjuna about the three different qualities known as the gunas and how discernment and attention can help to balance them. The Bhagavad Gita says that the gunas can be balanced by the foods that are consumed and good diet, charity to others and commitment to the spiritual path. 

“the material energy consists of three guṇas (modes)- sattva (goodness), rajas (passion), and tamas (ignorance). These modes bind the eternal soul to the perishable body.”

Bhagavad Gita 14.5

Why not check out the Bhagavad Gita to find out more about the gunas?

Key takeaways

Ultimately the gunas can help us understand the world around us. Although it might not be apparent at first, learning to notice and respond to our energetic states is a significant part of yoga.

Want to find out more?

Patanjali was a teacher within the Samkhya philosophy so why not check out his eight limbs?

Photo of author
Sarah is a Brighton-based yoga teacher and teacher trainer with a passion for teaching self-inquiry and rest.

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