Understanding the Gunas

In Ayurveda, everyone’s personal well-being comes down to 2 things: Dosha and Guna.

I’ve already talked a little bit about the 3 doshas (Although I’m partial to the fourth Dosha: Masala Dosha. Yummm!) If you need to figure out and learn about your dosha, check out that post here.

The Gunas: Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas; are a little harder to pin down. Unlike Dosha, you can’t use physical indicators to determine your Guna, and balancing them requires more than just diet and exercise. The three Gunas describe three different states of mind, and in order for a person to be happy and balanced, they must cultivate the expression of the Sattvic guna. The more Sattva you cultivate, the less the other Gunas will interfere.

Meditation is the only way to truly balance your Gunas, but before you can begin to cultivate Sattva, you have to understand and recognize the Gunas in yourself.



Tamasic people are lethargic and depressive. They tend to do less, be sleepy and are ignorant. When Tamas is our leading Guna, it’s very hard to find motivation, cleanliness, spirituality or intellectual elevation. The god Shiva is associated with Tamasic energy.

I remember Dr. John Casey say, during my yoga teacher training, that our cultural tendency to be tamasic is evident in our obsession with the supernatural, monsters, zombies and vampires. This is because Tamas is associated with the lower, baser plain of existence or the “underworld.”



Rajas is characterized by aggression, passion, and a fiery nature. For Rajasic people, self-interest is the number one priority. They are very taken in by worldly needs, money, accomplishments, and greed. Rajasic people tend to lack altruism and empathy. The god Brahma is associated with Rajasic energy.

The idea of expansion, imperialism and industry are all born of Rajasic energy. One one hand, Rajas promotes progress. On the other hand, it often does so at the expense of human goodness. Rajas is the dominant Guna of the middle world and is between Tamas and Sattva.



Sattvic people are healthy, happy, and pure of heart. They enjoy helping people and seeking out knowledge. They aspire to lead lives of comfort, pleasure, and intellect. If you have a naturally Sattvic nature, you are acutely aware of pleasure, happiness, and comfort and you seek to promote those things in your life. You also seek to lessen any pain, sadness, or negativity. The god Vishnu is associated with Sattva.

Artists, inventors, intellectuals and creators tend to be more Sattvic people. They see the value in cultivating a life of the mind and often enjoy lives of relative comfort and ease. The realm of the gods, or “heaven” is an elevated, purely Sattvic place.


The three Gunas are pretty clear, but it gets a little more complicated when you consider that Sattva isn’t actually the goal of meditation.

Ultimately, the goal of meditation and yoga is to rise above the Gunas altogether, but for the vast majority of us, that is unattainable in this lifetime. Embracing Sattva is seen as a good first step towards transcending our human nature, but Sattva is still very much connected to this world. People who embrace Sattva are attracted to pleasure and repelled by pain, and it holds them back from seeking true freedom from the world.

I’m neither educated nor enlightened enough to speak to what it means to transcend our humanity, but I know this much: transcendence is the ultimate goal.

I hope I was able to shed some light on what the Gunas describe and mean. I know it took me a long time and lots of reading to get even this basic understanding. 


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