Throughout the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna talks about three gunas and the effects they have on each individual. The word “guna” means “strand” or “quality”; the gunas are qualities that influence and control our actions and even our personalities. Having a working understanding of the three gunas – sattva, rajas, and tamas – can help us to better understand ourselves, our motivations, and our spiritual path.
The first and highest of the gunas, sattva, denotes peacefulness, calm, contentment, and balance. Ideally, after meditation or after yoga asana practice, you’ll be feeling sattvic: the goal of these practices is to bring about a sattvic state. Sattvic foods include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and seeds, dairy products, and sweet spices like cinnamon or cardamom.
The second guna, rajas, denotes activity, energy, sensuality, desires, attachments, and enjoyments. Being in a rajasic state can be good for getting a lot done at the office because you’re full of energy and drive. Feeling rajasic can be pleasant, but to make progress on our spiritual path, we need to strive for a sattvic state. Rajasic foods include caffeine, meats, heavy foods, and very spicy foods. From an ayurvedic standpoint, the vata dosha is most rajasic.
The final guna is tamas, which denotes laziness, lethargy, confusion, and ignorance. We all feel tamasic sometimes, but it’s not a state anyone really wants to be in. Tamasic foods include fast foods, old or leftover foods, canned or boxed foods, and foods with lots of preservatives. In ayurveda, kapha is the most tamasic dosha – spicy rajasic foods can help to get kaphas moving!
The three gunas act together to influence our thoughts, words, and actions. In understanding the gunas, we can come to understand our motivations and why we do what we do. Try using the gunas as a system of measuring your mental state. The gunas fluctuate depending on each person and each day, but at any given time one guna is dominant over the others. Which guna is affecting you most right now?
As yogis, when we’re aware of the gunas, we can use that knowledge and our discrimination to make choices that will lead us to a sattvic state. When you first wake up in the morning, you may feel sleepy and tamasic, so what do you do to get yourself moving? If you have six cups of coffee, that will lead to a rajasic state; if instead you do your yoga practice followed by a healthy breakfast, that’s more likely to lead to a sattvic state. (And if you roll over and go back to sleep, you’re giving in to the tamas and you won’t get anything done!) Paying attention to our moods, and to the effect our choices have on our moods, will lead us to make healthier choices, choices that make us happier.
As a yoga teacher, it’s important to be aware of the gunas too. The purpose of yoga class is to bring the students to a sattvic state. This is why most yoga classes begin with a series of active rajasic poses, then lead students to more calming poses and finally to relax in savasana. If the yoga teacher is aware of the gunas, she’ll be careful to preserve the sattvic state of her students at the end of class: talking in a soft voice, making slow movements, and turning the lights up gradually. Loud voices, bright lights, and being rushed out of the room can spoil that yoga high!