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The Three Gunas: Living a Sattvic Life

According to yoga philosophy, everything is made up of three qualities or attributes, called gunas—sattva, rajas, and tamas. The predominant energy of sattva is light. The predominant energy of rajas is motion. The predominant energy of tamas is darkness. As guna means thread or strand, the three gunas weave together these three intertwined aspects to form everything in existence. The proportion of each thread determines the dominant feature of what is formed. Everything exists because of the interplay of the gunas and every aspect of our existence is profoundly affected by them.

State of Flux The three gunas are constantly in a state of flux, but we can and do influence them as well. Everything we say, think or do sets in motion the influence of sattva, rajas or tamas, reinforcing them in body, mind, behavior, and being. A predominance of sattva is expressed as clarity, upliftment, intelligence, harmony, friendliness, compassion, discernment, inner happiness or gratitude. A key goal of yoga is to cultivate sattva guna in every aspect of life. A predominance of rajas brings up impulses of desire, ambition, passion. It can provide impetus to get things done. In excess, it can show up as restlessness, jealousy, greed, aggressiveness, hatred, anger, chaos. When tamas predominates, it is grounding. A little bit of tamas makes for a good night’s sleep. In excess, tamas leads to dullness, inertia, procrastination, doubt, superficiality, apathy and despair. Cultivating sattva is of prime importance to the yogi. Allowing rajas and tamas to predominate is to allow toxic thoughts and behavior to predominate, leading to disharmony, disease and premature aging—obstacles to the state of yoga. On the Yoga Mat Imagine three people in the same yoga class, practicing paschimottanasana, or Seated Forward Fold. What guna do you think is dominant in each of them? Ella is determined to make an impressive showing and struggles mightily to go very deeply into the pose. “I will touch my toes, by God,” she thinks. As a result, she rounds her shoulders to lurch farther forward, which gains her about an inch but brings pain into her lower back. She labors on, hoping to impress the new teacher, who seems interesting. Emmett is just not into it. He’s absently checking his fingernails as he half-heartedly moves into the pose. He’s not really challenging himself. “What’s the use?” he thinks. He slouches his upper back, which compresses his diaphragm, interfering with breathing. But he’s only slightly uncomfortable, so he begins to drift off. Chloe moves mindfully into the pose, present to body and breath. She has a pleasant feeling of restful alertness; her breath follows her awareness to the sensations of stretch in the body. Her body remains open as the stretch gradually deepens to the point where it feels right to her. Her sense of quiet exhilaration brings an upsurge of gratitude, which is imperceptible to others in the class except for the slight hint of a smile on her face. Food for Thought In the Bhagavad Gita, a highly regarded text from the yoga tradition, Krishna describes to Arjuna how the food we eat affects the presence of each of the gunas: Sattva ~ Food that is fresh, soothing and agreeable to digestion, prepared with positive attitude and received in gratitude. Breakfast is light; lunch is substantial as required but not more; dinner is as light as possible so bodily organs can rest through the night. (b.g.17.8) Rajas ~ Rajasic people are drawn to spicy, hot, bitter, salty, acidic and burning food. Like the people who eat it, this food produces pain, grief, and disease, and hinders spiritual attainment. (b.g.17.9) Tamas ~ Tamasic people eat old, overcooked, stale, tasteless, impure, empty, and dead food with no nutritional value. This food returns these qualities in kind to the eater. (b.g.17.10) In practice, we tend to cycle through the gunas, with one then another predominating, in the same way we can tend to favor a certain diet, perhaps sattvic, but then fall off the wagon with some unconscious, habit-driven action that’s not in our best interest. But there’s always a moment of a choice—even if it’s just a split second—to notice what may have otherwise been a mindless impulse to raid the fridge and scarf up massive quantities of that cold three-day-old pizza. A coherent daily practice of meditation and yoga increases our consciousness and we become more aware of rajasic and tamasic patterns that no longer serve us. Increased sattva improves our observation skills. With self-compassion, we monitor and make new decisions to further cultivate the presence and potency of sattva, both on the yoga mat and in every area of life. We need all three gunas, but as yogis, we want to cultivate a predominance of sattva guna, while retaining some rajas and a small amount of tamas. How do we strike a balance? The eight limbs of yoga, as advocated in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, begin with prescriptions for a sattvic lifestyle. The first two limbs, Yama and Niyama, help us measure how well our behavior and mental patterns align with sattva. [See more about the first two limbs of yoga in “Live Like a Yoga Part 1” in our June issue.] LIVE LIKE A YOGI

A Sattvic Life According to Ayurveda, we “digest” everything we take in through our senses, not just through our food, and everything can have a rajasic, tamasic or sattvic influence on our being. Equipped with this awareness, we can be more discerning about our choices—the movies we watch, the substances we take into our bodies, the people we associate with, who we choose as our role models and all aspects of our lives. To cultivate more sattva in life, we can begin to notice the effects of the day’s activities and begin to bring more awareness to everything we do. In yoga practice: Notice the effect of your asana practice on your body and mind, both during and especially the time following your practice. Do you have a sense of clarity, upliftment, calm energy (sattva)? Or do you feel agitated, quick to fly off the handle, impatient (excess rajas)? Or dull, wiped out, needing to sleep (excess tamas)? Notice, and modify your practice as needed. In meditation: “Be without the three gunas, Arjuna, freed from duality,” says Krishna in the Gita. But he is not advocating eliminating the three gunas from our lives. He is advocating a technique of meditation that moves us beyond the technique to a state of pure meditation—beyond any thought, attitude or intention. Resting in this state brings us back into alignment—the state of yoga. In activity: “Established in Yoga, perform action, for balance of mind is called Yoga.” (b.g. 2.48) By regularly resting in meditation, we return to activity refreshed and with a balanced perspective. We are more able to observe our life and make more conscious decisions on how we choose to be. In our thoughts: Becoming more aware of the effect that our own thoughts have on us might be the biggest challenge of all. Are our thoughts creating conflict or separation (rajas)? Inertia (tamas)? Or upliftment and harmony (sattva)? It might be difficult to stop an unhealthy thought from manifesting at first. But we can choose not to entertain it. As we grow in sattva, the quality of our thinking and behavior will naturally become more positive and life-supporting. Graham Fowler is creating a haven on the banks of the Upper Tallulah River for yogis and lovers of nature. Contact him at

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