Gunas: Essence of the Cosmos
by David Nelson
The World deluded by these Three Gunas does not know Me:
Who is beyond these Gunas and imperishable.
-Krishna to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra (Bhagavad Gita 7.13)
One of the key concepts that lives behind your yoga practice (conciously or not) is the balance of what is known in Hindu philosophy and Ayurveda as the gunas. The gunas are three natural tendencies (triguna) in all that exists: rajas, tamas, and sattva. Gunas are the tendancy toward a quality, not the quality itself.
- Sattva (originally “being, existence, entity”) has been translated to mean balance, order, or purity. Indologist Georg Feuerstein translates sattva as “lucidity“.
- Rajas (originally “atmosphere, air, firmament”) is also translated to mean change, movement or dynamism. Sometimes it is referred to as fire, because of its transformative nature.
- Tamas (originally “darkness”, “obscurity”) has been translated to mean “too inactive” or “inertia”, negative, lethargic, dull, or slow. Usually it is associated with darkness, delusion, or ignorance. A tamas quality also can refer to anything destructive or entropic. In his Translation and Commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi explains “The nature of tamo guna is to check or retard, though it should not be thought that if the movement is upward tamo guna is absent.”
These tendencies can be related to the influence of Platonic archetypes in all being. Also, students of Ayurveda will see the ready relationship with the tridosha, which describe the tendencies of our constitutional make-up. We can easily relate the three gunas to the Trimurti, or three natures of God in Hinduism.
Inherent in the gunas is the tendency towards itself: that which is rajasic seeks rajas, that which is tamasic becomes more so. When one nature dominates another (imbalance), the imbalance grows. Thus the intent from an Ayurvedic approach would be to return one’s constitution to it’s innate nature. In your yoga practice, this means knowing that you have a constitution that expresses these tendencies, which may or may not be in balance, and that the yoga poses and breathing, the sequence of poses, the pace of your practice, and the effort applied to your yoga practice each serve to bring greater or lesser balance to your current constitution.
Let’s say you are a type-A achiever (rajasic), a bit over-booked, and finding yourself stressed throughout the day. You may find that the yoga practice that feels best to you is one that is highly energetic and disciplined, and soon you are practicing every day pushing a little bit each time to get a little better (rajasic). In other words, you have manifested your nature into your yoga practice, making it more of the same. Cultivating a practice of stillness and contemplation, of steadiness, and concentration (more tamasic) may feel uncomfortable and challenging, but may provide the balance that you need to alleviate stress and provide more clarity and ease in your life (stattva). Of course, an opposite example can easily be imagined, where more vitality needs to come from the practice to enliven our constitution.
While this is a simplified discussion, it suggests that, while it is important to have a balanced practice, we also should have a balanced life, and the practice may be an important influence on achieving that balance. What do you think? Have you had an experience with this?