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What are Gunas?

It is baffling how there are entire days when you—the most active, dynamic, and goal-oriented person—cannot bring yourself to be productive, even if you wanted to. You try to scream to the world, “But I am not that person. I am not like that.” And then, you end up blaming yourself for feeling the way you feel-sluggish and slow.

Let us take that guilt off your shoulders—Ayurveda has a better explanation for it in the form of gunas, or qualities of manifest matter.

Before we delve into the answers, take this short quiz:

  1. After a heavy meal how do you feel, heavy or light?
  2. When you are feeling restless or fidgety, do you feel like going for a run or doing some activity?
  3. Do you have moments in the day when your mind is calm and clear and you feel this good energy coursing through you?

Three Gunas

The Samkhya philosophy, an ancient and timeless Indian philosophy mentions that there are three essential gunas or dynamic and subtle qualities present in every individual, that make us who we are and determine our behavior, perception, and action. Though subtle, they influence how we interact with the five senses and the five elements in nature. These gunas explain why one feels lethargic or restless, focused at one time or scattered at another.
Prakruti has three attributes of

  • Lightness or awareness (Sattva)
  • Activity (Rajas)
  • Stability or inertia (Tamas).

At any time, only one guna can dominate a human being, but for a happy and complete life, it is ideal to strive for a balance in the three gunas.


Sattva is the finest of all the three qualities. It relates to clarity, purity, simplicity, pure love, contentment, willingness to serve, heightened awareness and adherence to the laws of nature. When Sattva dominates in people, they show signs of being noble, spiritual, joyous, pure and not quick to lose their centeredness in life. It represents the higher or spiritual potential in a jeeva, or being.

A sattvic action is bound to bring you joy, health, and happiness. When you are calm, peaceful and steady, know sattva guna is high. Sattva guna is free of malice, anger, violence, or any of the negative attributes. An abundant source of sattva is nature. Also, if you are living a life that is aligned with nature, sattva guna is likely to be high. It can also be increased by engaging in spirituality, chanting, service, pure fresh foods, herbs, and water. Sattva is also related to the highest and purest form of intelligence and is represented by white color.

Sattva can be found in the purity of matter, wisdom, and harmony. Wherever there is wisdom, the sattva is bound to be high. It is said about sattva guna that the more we start living a life that is high in sattva, our work gets accomplished much faster and more efficiently. So if you are looking for enlightenment or liberation or what is called the state of samadhi, sattva guna will need to be high for these goals to be met.

So, to increase sattva, you must reduce rajas and tamas in the body and mind. You can do this by

  • Eating foods that are sattvic like fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes and whole grains cooked lightly.
  • Practicing yoga, pranayama, meditation, and chanting
  • Adopting principles of ahimsa or non-violence
  • Living in knowledge\
  • Keeping company with wise people or people with positive mindset
  • Service.


This is the most active of the three gunas. It is known to be associated with nurturing or maintenance, motion, and stimulation. It signifies moving into action. The dominance of rajas makes one restless and anxious. High rajas guna reflects as too many desires, ambitions, excitability and feverishness to fulfill them. Those with more rajasic and sattvic tendencies look to improve themselves through spiritual and holistic means. It represents the intermediate or life potential. Rajas can be defined by destruction, power seeking, turbulence, or passion. When you find someone seeking instant gratification, that is a sign of rajas guna.

Rajas guna can increase by consuming certain spicy foods, alcohol, drugs, or other stimulants. It is represented by the color red. It can also be present where there is a feeling of attachment, longing for pleasure, or relentless desires.

You can balance rajas guna by

  • Practicing meditation
  • Practicing cooling pranayamas
  • Avoinding fried and spicy foods and also foods that are bitter, sour, or salty
  • Slowing down, listening more, and resting
  • Avoiding noisy environments or stimulating surroundings
  • Picking gentle calming music over loud music
  • Being in nature, in a calming environment
  • Eating your meals mindfully
  • Eating more greens instead of dairy and eggs
  • Cutting down on caffeine and sugar
  • Sticking to a routine.


This is the lowest, most inert and basest of the three gunas. When this guna dominates in you, are likely to feel sluggish, lethargic, unproductive, unwilling, and emotionally low. It is known by clouded perception and heaviness. When tamas is high, it can also be related to delusions, apathy, sleepiness, laziness and suffering. It is called the lower or material potential of jeeva.

Tamas is the quality of stagnation, darkness, or inertia. When the prana or life force drops further, rajasic energy turns tamasic. So if you are feeling stuck, depressed, dark, or deceivingly low in life, know that tamas is dominant. Once you are aware of this, simply by shifting the prana or energy level and making the right changes in diet and lifestyle, you will be able to move out of tamas.

Tamas can be found in greasy, heavy, or stale foods, meat, and exposure to violence, overconsumption of alcohol, drugs, and negativity. It is represented by color black. When tamas dominates, you are unlikely to feel positive, energized, or clear in head. For a spiritual seeker to make progress, transcending tamas guna and raising one’s prana or life force is a must, in order to be able to meditate in samadhi.

To overcome tamas guna,

  • Avoid tamasic foods like meat, processed or stale foods, alcohol, root vegetables, carbs and fats
  • Avoid overindulgence
  • Eat more fresh fruits and vegetables that are light on the stomach
  • Practice yogasanas, have a daily practice in place
  • Reduce your sleep
  • Practice pranayamas like nadi shodhana, bhastrika, and kapalbhati for a boost of prana
  • Practice meditation that is associated with movements like labyrinth meditation or walking meditations
  • Get out into nature more often
  • Seek activity and adventure. 

Gunas are in a Constant Flux

One important thing to know about the gunas is they are in constant flux, that is they are constantly rising and collapsing in an individual based on various times of the day, seasons, activities, what we eat, what we consume, how we think, our physical and mental constitution, and our environment. The dominant guna affects perception, too. For example, if sattva is high, you are likely to be more cheerful, positive, dynamic, and centered in all situations, whereas when tamas is high, you may experience a host of negative emotions, pessimism.

After learning about the gunas, you may be tempted to work on increasing one or two, but each guna has its own function, character, and purpose to serve in the manifest universe, as long as they are present in desirable proportions. For example, though Sattva guna is what is spiritually desirable, an athlete or a soldier needs to have strong rajas guna. Similarly, no matter how sattvic a person is, they need some tamas guna to be able to sleep.

So, to answer the questions we asked at the beginning of this article,

  • If you are feeling heavy after a meal, it indicates an increase in tamas guna
  • When you are feeling restless like there is unspent energy that you don’t know what to do with, that is the sign of  rajas guna
  • Moments when your mind is clear and you feel positive energy coursing through you, know the sattva guna is high. 

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