Yogic cosmology and philosophy conceive of an holistic model of the universe; a universe shot through with vibrant divine consciousness, all things interconnected and in relationship with each other. The universe is manifested through sound vibration- the creative explosion of the primal Shakti energy of ‘ONG’- through which all matter flowed out in a descending hierarchy of subtle to denser forms of energy. Lying veiled beyond the manifested universe is the Great Unmanifest; pure Consciousness itself. This is often referred to as the Godhead, or Brahman.
All that is manifest- Nature (Prakriti) & Consciousness- is made up of 5 elements- earth, water, fire, air and ether. These elements are imbued with 3 subtle qualities. These are the 3 ‘flavours’ of life. Yogis call them the gunas. The gunas underlie matter, mind and all expressions of life.
Everything is made up of a combination of these 3; they are the qualities of light, movement and stability. A different quality will come to the fore as and when we need it to live in the world. For example, we need the quality of stillness and stability to be dominant when we want to sleep. To get things done, we need the quality of movement and action. To meditate we need the quality of lightness.
These three gunas (qualities) are tamas (stability), rajas (movement) and sattva (lightness). Each has specific qualities that imbue matter with their characteristics. These characteristics can manifest both positively and negatively.
Qualities of Tamas (or tamasic energy)
“Tamas, ignorance-born, deludes all embodied beings; it binds them by means of negligence, laziness and sleep.” Bhagavad Gita 14:8
Here the Gita highlights tamas as the energy of inertia: it can manifest positively as ease, loyalty, stability, groundedness, patience- and the ability to know when to ‘go to ground’, to retreat into the quiet sanctuary of Self.
Negatively, tamasic energy is apathy, depression, grief, feeling weighted-down by helplessness, sluggishness. It is avoidance, and the ‘can’t be arsed’ attitude. It lulls us into a fog of dullness.
Qualities of Rajas (or rajasic energy)
“Rajas is marked by passion born of craving and attachment; it binds the embodied Self to never-ending activity.” Bhagavad Gita 14:7
Here the Gita highlights the fiery nature of rajas. It is heat, light, movement and activity. On the positive side, rajasic energy is enthusiasm, excitement, can-do attitude, ambition, creativity and presence.
Negatively, rajas manifests as hyperactivity, aggression, struggle, fear, agitation and anxiety. It ties us to the wheel of endless doing.
Qualities of Sattva (or sattvic energy)
“Amongst these, sattva guna- the mode of goodness- untainted, luminous, free from sorrow, binds the soul by creating attachment to a sense of knowledge and joy.” Bhagadvad Gita 14:6
Sattvic energy is the quality of balance, harmony and illumination– when the horizon feels clear and all is in flow. These are the positive manifestations of this energy, along with goodness, wisdom, peace, and being present. Sattva is that sense of well-being and contentment. Sattva is the golden balance between the poles of rajas and tamas.
An excess of sattva can produce egoic illusion; smugness and self-satisfaction.
What does guna mean?
Guna means rope or strand. The three ‘strands’ of energy that make up reality are constantly intertwined. They are the ropes that anchor the embodied soul to the material world. Think of life as a tapestry of innterconnected threads: like the seasons, our life has times of stillness, times of manic activity, and times of deep peace and ease.
Another good image is the see-saw. Our experiences shift back and forth from one end of the see-saw to the other- the highs and lows. High energy- slump. Slump- high energy. The ideal we strive for is balance- the middle of the see-saw. We call this neutrality in Kundalini Yoga. This is sattva guna.
Why do I need to know about the gunas?
As yogis, our journey is self-enquiry; it is developing awareness of our mood, our tone and our flavour at any given time. To be aware that we may be slumped in a tamasic low, or trapped in a workaholic rajasic energy. When we are mellow and in flow, we note the feeling of sattvic energy.
Growing consciousness, or awareness, allows us to choose- consciously- how we want to live. Awareness gives us space to stand back and take a breath and be the observer of Self. Why can I not concentrate today? Why is it that I just can’t get out of bed this week? Why is my mind all over the place?
It is seeing also how we fit into the bigger picture: how we are entwined in the fabric of our environments. High stormy, windy weather is rajasic and can bring that quality up in us. Heavy, muggy, stifling weather is tamasic- and will feed into our own energies.
With knowledge comes power- power of choice. Power to change. Power to “take altitude and change attitude” as Yogi Bhajan used to say.
How do I change my energy?
The challenge, always, is to move towards sattvic energy; to find the middle of the see-saw between rajasic busyness and tamsic inertia. This is where our yogic practices come in. We apply breath techniques, postures, mantras and relaxation to create state-change in the body-mind.
But remember, all three gunas are sensory experiences; embodied experiences. The taste, too, for delicious sattvic energy still attaches or ties us to a feeling of flow and peace. The yogic ideal is to meditate to transcend sensory experience- of all kinds. The goal is to ‘go beyond’ and dip our Soul nature in the waters of the Godhead Itself.
In this way, the gunas are a great spring-board for identifying the tides of energies that flow through our systems; we can name them, and in so doing we have power to change them.