Dance of the Gunas
The three essential aspects of nature support and enhance our yoga practice on and off the mat.
By Cyndi Lee
I had just landed in Japan after a grueling 15-hour flight that crossed the international dateline. My whole body was exhausted, sleep-deprived, and heavy. I felt as if Elmer’s glue had seeped into my hip joints and, even worse, into my digestive tract. My face was dry and my hair clung desperately to my head. I couldn’t even imagine trying to do yoga, and yet mentally I was hyper-alert. I was both tired and wired. This strange combination of bright mind and dull body is not unusual for me following one of these marathon flights, so I wasn’t too worried. I knew all these feelings would change in a couple of days when I got through my jet lag.
But then something unusual happened. First I heard a loud sound, and then everything around, above, and under me started shaking and rumbling. I recognized right away that I was in an earthquake, although I wouldn’t learn until later that it was the biggest earthquake in recorded history.
The lights hanging from the airport ceiling began swinging wildly, and then the ceiling itself started to fall down, one panel at a time. As the jostling of the ground continued, I leaned against the immigration counter to keep my balance. And in a strange way, it worked; I felt steady both inside and out.
Since that day, many people have asked me if I freaked out when I felt the earth moving so dramatically. If there were ever a time for losing one’s composure, it was then! I had felt physically sluggish and mentally speedy moments before the earth shook so violently. But when I fully realized I was in a serious earthquake, instead of panicking, I became calm and present. My body continued rocking and rolling, but my mind remained steady and clear. I felt oddly stable, even though I was standing on moving ground.
The Path of Stability
In his brilliant book, Light on Life, the great yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar writes that stability is something we can practice and, ultimately, master. The path to cultivating that stability is through balance, which he defines as being present in the here and now. That sounds easy enough, but we all know we get out of balance on a daily basis. Our mind cycles through past memories and then into future fantasies and then wanders back to the past again and again, all day long. Now and then we awaken into a sense of clarity, but, soon enough, we drift off again.
The good news is that we can shift this mental pattern by working with our body. When we can find balance in our physical setup, it naturally leads to balance in the mind. The ancient teachings of yoga offer us a map for finding this elusive balance, which is attained by harmonizing the three essential aspects of nature. These aspects, called the gunas, manifest as tamas, fixed or dull energy; rajas, dynamic or pulsating energy; and sattva, clear and intelligent energy—and exist within us as well as in the world around us.
The heavy feeling in my body when I first arrived in Japan was tamas—a feeling of dense, thick, lethargic stuckness. The wired feeling in my mind was rajas—lots of percolating thoughts bubbling and bouncing around. My body remained in New York, but my mind had already raced ahead to what I needed to do to get to my hotel and get organized for the training I was going to start teaching the next day. I was both in the past and in the future. There was not much sattva—clarity or intelligence—until my external circumstances woke me up and placed me firmly in the here-and-now.
The Gunas at Play
The gunas are always present, and they show up in all kinds of combinations. Have you ever felt really bored and, at the same time, noticed that your leg is bouncing up and down? This would be a case of a tamasic mind and a rajasic body—just the opposite of my guna state when I touched down in Japan. Or perhaps you have lain in a beautiful field, gazed up at the stars, and felt a profound sense of presence, of connection and peace with all that is. That is sattva.
These examples illustrate the fluid and ever-changing aspects of the gunas. On the days that you feel overly rajasic—wired, edgy, and maybe a little impatient—you can reestablish balance by notching up tamas, the opposite of rajas. This works because the gunas have both positive and negative aspects. The beneficial quality of tamas offers grounded spaciousness, and rajas gives us the oomph we need to get things done. Although sattva might often seem unattainable, it’s really not, because the qualities of luminosity, goodness, and innate intelligence are who we are already, deep at our core.
To begin to establish the balance and stability Iyengar writes about, we must take an honest look at how the gunas manifest in our mind and body right now. Yoga asanas provide a perfect vehicle for this investigation. One reason we feel so peaceful when we lie on our back in shavasana is that we can directly connect to the earth, to our foundation. Since lying on the earth makes us feel grounded, it makes sense that the way we consciously create balance through yoga practice also involves connecting directly to the earth. In fact, the Sanskrit word asana—used to indicate a pose or posture—literally translates as “to sit with” or “to sit down.” This means that whatever part of your body is touching the ground is called the “seat” of the pose.
Let Breath Change the Tempo
Let’s take a look at how the gunas are currently dancing within you. Sit down on your mat and close your eyes. How did you get here today? Did you have to rush? Is your body feeling a little speedy? This rajasic quality may make it hard to settle into your practice. Or perhaps you had to drag yourself to class today, your tamasic mind resisting the whole way. Simply notice without judgment. Wherever you are is fine and interesting. This is just the gunas at play, and once you make friends with them, you can play, too.
Once you discover which guna currently dominates, you can use your breath to shift toward balance. If you feel mentally or physically sluggish, refresh your posture and begin this energizing breath pattern: inhale for 6 counts, exhale for 4. Emphasizing the inhalation will give you more rajasic energy and perk you right up. Do the opposite if you are overstimulated: inhale 4 counts and exhale 6 or 8. The tamasic exhalation will help you calm down and feel more stable and grounded. Repeat the breathing pattern at least five times. As rajas and tamas begin to integrate, you might experience a sense of equanimity and well-being: the arising of sattva.
Once you’ve become familiar with the actual feeling of each guna, you can begin to explore their aspects in your asana practice. Let’s start with tadasana (mountain pose) and virabhadrasana II (warrior II pose).
Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
Stand with your feet aligned below your hips. Tune in to the sensations in your feet. Are your toes long and relaxed or grippy? The grounded stability of tamas supports the work of the lower body in standing poses. But the agitated energy of rajas may cause your toes to hold on for dear life or your buttocks to seize up like crazy. How can you tell? Notice your breathing, which is governed by rajas. Does your breath flow smoothly or does it feel choppy? Can you apply a tiny bit of tamas to soften the breath? Now notice if this easier breath helps your lower body feel more balanced, too. As your tamas and rajas—muscular effort and wind energy—become more equalized, you will likely begin to feel the bright, relaxed quality of sattva arise in your mind and provide a gentle lift and openness in the upper body. Can you abide with that, resisting any tendency to grip that state of mind with too much rajas, or slip away from it through the laziness of tamas?
Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose)
From tadasana, open into virabhadrasana II. Bend your right leg. Step your left leg back and open it out to a 45-degree angle. Turn your chest to the side of the mat and extend your arms out at shoulder height. Breathe in and out, taking a moment to check in with the state of the gunas here. Perhaps you have found a firm grounding in your legs through just the right amount of tamas. Wonderful! But that tamasic energy will be too heavy for your upper body. Although a warrior pose implies strong, intentional energy, the yoga warrior is also open-hearted and never aggressive. So the quality of sattvic lightness and radiance will give just enough lift to your virabhadrasana II chest.
Don’t hold your breath here, which will freeze sattva, turning something fluid and lovely into something hard and dead. Check in to make sure that this uplifted feeling in your torso stays bright and fluid (through gentle, rajasic breaths) and clearly connected to the downward flow of tamas in your lower body. Try to keep your tamas, rajas, and sattva in constant communication with each other. As long as the gunas are talking to each other, no one guna will become the boss of the others. This conversation is how we stay present.
All the Right Moves
Paying attention to the gunas in asana practice gives us a map that can lead to stability in mind and body. And like any good map, the directions will be clear, but it is up to us to pay attention to the path, continue putting one foot in front of the other, and commit to the journey. This is how we practice. Firm grounding, bright activity, and basic goodness are the three essential ingredients we work with, day in and day out.
Iyengar is right, of course. My many years of asana practice showed up for me when I found myself in the middle of an earthquake, trying to stand up on a violently shifting surface. Without me even thinking about it, tamas gave me stability in my legs; rajas kept my breath flowing smoothly, to balance my nervous system; and sattva gave me mental clarity and a positive outlook, so I didn’t get scared. The practice worked! When the earthquake stopped, I wasn’t a mess. I didn’t know what was going to happen next, but, in that moment, I was stable and fully able to deal with whatever might meet me as I walked out of the airport.
Cyndi Lee, founder of OM yoga, an internationally acclaimed yoga school, is author of Yoga Body, Buddha Mind and May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind (Dutton Publications, 2013).