Understanding the Gunas

the three gunas

The three energetic qualities that make up all of life can help you find balance and insight. We are all born with a certain allocation and distribution of these three energetic qualities, the gunas.

When we think about energy, we don’t think of gunas. It’s easy to identify when these energies are lagging, and most of the time we know how to replenish or balance them: We eat healthy foods, rest, get out into nature, connect with the people we love, commit to a consistent spiritual practice, or let go of some questionable habits.

But energy is more than what fuels the body or the mind. Many ancient traditions, such as yoga, Taoism, Buddhism, and Hinduism — plus modern physics — teach that everything in the universe is energy. A table, a computer, and a bicycle are all forms of energy; each one vibrates at a speed that allows you to see, touch, and use it. Every thought, feeling, and experience you have also has a unique energy vibration that is imprinted into the body in the form of physical sensations and then hopefully released on the wave of the breath. This non-tangible energy can best be understood by delving into the balance of the subtle body — the gunas.

What are Gunas?

The gunas (Sanskrit for strands or qualities) are energetic forces that weave together to form the universe and everything in it. There are three gunas, each with its own unique attributes: tamas (inertia), rajas (activity), and sattva (peace, serenity). It might help to think of gunas as tendencies: the habitual ways you respond to any situation that arises. All three gunas are present in every experience in a constantly shifting relationship with one another. One quality is always more present or dominant than the others, depending on what challenge you’re facing — and, most important, how you respond to it. When you overreact because someone cut you off in traffic, rajas becomes dominant. If you emotionally shut down to avoid having a difficult conversation, that’s a sign that tamas has taken the reins. As you emerge from a beautiful restorative practice, you may experience the sattvic quality of joy. Understanding the gunas is important because while the challenges of our everyday lives can disturb their delicate balance, these energies, entwined in an intricate dance, create all that we are, all that we see, and all that remains unseen.


Tamas (inertia) gets a bad rap, often being described solely as the force of entropy, lethargy, and stagnation. But its energetic vibration, which is slow and thick, also stabilizes and focuses. It is the exhalation that calms and steadies. Tamas is also translated as “matter,” and it predominates in any object that is seemingly solid—that table, laptop, or bicycle. In nature, tamas destroys plant matter so it can be reabsorbed into the earth and nourish new life. In your body, tamasic energy is prevalent in the muscles, bones, and flesh. In your mind, tamasic energy is dominant when you feel depressed, or when a heavy emotional burden makes it hard to get out of bed. When tamas is prevalent, you aren’t able to muster much enthusiasm for anything, including your spirituality. You might find yourself obsessing over a relationship gone wrong or beating yourself up for the choices you’ve made.


Girl on couch
Tamas guna finds it easy to lounge about all day, and is easily a characteristic of “couch potatoes”

You can walk or jog to get free from the clutches of tamas. Chanting a mantra will lift the mind out of a tamasic mood. Setting some targets on a do-list and attacking that with gusto will rid one of tamasic sloth. (Tamas has a bad rep…) Ayurvedic practitioners suggest staying away from tamasic foods, such as meat, garlic, onions, and breads as well as leftovers and choosing fresh local fruits and vegetables, minimally prepared. Eating, unfortunately, will most often only prolong tamas – think of the postprandial nap! Manufactured food and fast food are tamasic in nature. Fast food is mostly empty calories with little nutrition!


Rajas (activity) is what gets things moving. In nature, rajas allows seeds to sprout, flowers to germinate, and babies to be born. The vibration of rajas is at a higher frequency than tamas. It is the inhalation; it’s what gets you up in the morning and keeps you going all day. It is also the energy of change, unbridled enthusiasm, passion, and the self-confidence to get stuff done. Rajas energy is future-directed and often manifests as longing, yearning, or sorrow. Rajas is the foundation of physical energy and action; it is the motivation to bring whatever we started to a conclusion. Becoming agitated with your work or relationships can cause rajas to dominate; it makes the mind go faster, it can heat up the blood and have us barging into situations without regard to what others feel or need.


Girl doing yoga poses
Rajas – rajasic energy gets you into action and gets you moving.

With rajas, we need to learn how to slow down. We need to take deep breaths and bring the flightiness of the mind to a stop. Consciously choose to slow down, relax and come to a stop. It is good – very good – for the mind to come to a stop, to silence. Deep breaths can smooth out the nervous system, clear the mind, and cool down the body. To tame rajasic energy, Ayurveda recommends sitting down at every meal, staying away from spicy or fried foods (and the chilli), and eating plenty of antioxidant-rich foods, like leafy greens.


Sattva (peace, serenity) is radiant presence, self-evident truth, and compassionate, selfless action. The quality of sattva is clear, focused, calm, and receptive. It is the fully formed flower, the beauty of a sunset, the bounty from the garden. Internally, it is in the gap you experience after the exhalation and before the inhalation comes again — the pause where you are free from thoughts, worries, and judgements, just for the moment, so that you can listen and act more from your higher consciousness and less from ego. You experience sattva primarily in meditation or whenever you commit to going inward, listening to your body, and moving in sync with your breath, or connecting to your higher consciousness. Sattvic harmony can shine forth only when tamas and rajas are balanced, which is a constant dance of the energies — moment by moment, as we notice how we meet each experience that presents itself.


lady in meditation
Sattvic energy (peace, serenity) is most present when we enter meditation and slow the breath down.

For sattvic energy we can eat fresh foods (a plant-based diet that’s organic and local, as much as possible). How we eat the food can also be sattvic. Gulping food down in a rush is rajasic. Offering the food to Source, eating quietly and calmly is sattvic, and eating in silence also promotes sattva. We can also promote sattva with chanting of prayers and mantras while we prepare food, and especially, when we wash and clean the implements. Sattvic energy deals with matters in a calm and measured manner. There is no need to haste, waste, worry. We can take time, consider our common sense, calmly examine the situation and discriminate right and wrong. These are sattvic practices that build a life of peace and energy.


the three gunas


Source (passim)
Image Source