the three gunas

If you’ve heard of the gunas, but haven’t done much practice with them, you probably have a few questions. One might be how to understand what is meant by the qualities of nature known as sattwa, rajas and tamas. Another could be: Is there any point in learning about them at all?

To answer the second one first: A real understanding of the gunas can be hugely beneficial to our spiritual/yoga practice. When you think about it, this isn’t surprising. Hatha yoga, pranayama, meditation, as well as scriptural study, were all originally devised to rebalance us in relation to the gunas. To understand how, we have to come back to the first question: What are the gunas?

The gunas are a way of understanding how the three qualities of nature affect us. I go in to a lot more detail on this in my booklet, which you can get for free just below, but put simply: 

  • Tamas is the quality of inertia. Negatively it brings dullness, inertia, forgetfulness, delusion and destructiveness, but it is also a positive and necessary grounding influence and enables us to sleep.
  • Rajas is energy. It brings the necessary qualities of activity and courage but also anger, anxiety, restlessness, fear and greed when it is too predominant.
  • Sattwa is the most spiritual guna. It provides the qualities of awareness, clarity, alertness, happiness, peacefulness, spaciousness and cleanliness. 

So spiritual practices increase sattwa and this, according to vedic and yogic philosophy, reduces the effects of the other gunas, which obscure the nature of the Eternal Being and make us feel like individual, separate entities. 

To understand how this works we can take the analogy of the sun shining on a lake. If the lake is wavy and choppy (rajas), the reflection of the sun becomes completely unstable and fragmented, as if there are lots of small separate suns. When the lake is full of mud and weeds (tamas), you can’t see the sun at all. But when the lake is still and calm like sattwa, the reflection of the sun can be seen very brightly and clearly. 

Exactly the same is the case with the pure Self shining through the atmosphere of our minds: increase sattwa and the Self shines brightly. 

And the magic of it is that, once you recognise that you actually are this blissful, shining Pure Being, all of the gunas are seen for what they really are—the very same Being taking different shapes and forms. Then the false sense of separation disappears and the Yoga or union with what you always were is complete.

If you’re interested in exploring the three gunas further, I’ve put together a booklet, which you can download for free. It includes suggestions about how yoga classes (and your personal practice) can be adjusted to bring a better balance of the gunas. I hope you find it helpful. 

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