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Guṇas and the Power of Choice

Updated: May 17, 2023

I have found many misconceptions about the constituents fundamental in the yoga system envisioned by Patañjali, constituents called the mahāguṇa. These three guṇas are historically referenced in the Samkhya school of philosophy as well as essential texts such as the Bhagavad Gīta, the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, and the Buddhacarita. However, the historicity of these guṇas is less of a concern in this article. I intend to help the reader comprehend why understanding these can help guide one’s life away from suffering and toward a place of peace and equanimity.

All substances entail qualities and their respective actions, such as light things being lightening or catabolic. Ayurveda recognizes twenty such attributes, but underlying these are three great guṇas, constituents of an entire metaphysical system that informs the practice of Yoga (capital ‘Y’); they are known as sattva, rajas, and tamas. These designations remain in Sanskrit as they do not have simple English equivalents. Sattva can represent or lead to the consciousness, ego, and mind in addition to purity, light, and vigor, among many other things. Rajas denotes and compels passion, activity, “a darkening quality,” etc. Tamas represents and conveys darkness, delusion, heaviness, and dullness. So, how is this relevant to yoga practitioners and those living out this human experience?

First, the relevancy of these mahā guṇas, as I will refer to them collectively, to the practice of yoga is made clear in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra (The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali). In these aphorisms, Patañjali ensures practitioners that indifference to the guṇas is higher than renunciation (1.16). Further, that suffering ensues due to the changing states of the mind related to the guṇas (2.15). It is the nature of the guṇas to always be in flux (2:19). Whether something has been, is becoming, or will be, the guṇas are the essence of everything (4.13). However, by their alteration, one can experience variety in this material existence or “liberation” from the everchanging states of being (4:32). If liberation is reached, the guṇas return to a state of equilibrium as they longer serve a purpose (4.34).

Secondly, understanding the nature of these constituents as they relate to material existence benefits those who want to live a healthier balanced life aimed at minimizing suffering through personal choice. All of life’s activities can be connected to these components of being. Eating or participating in heavy, dull, dark, or burdensome actions increases tamas, for example, by eating overcooked or old leftovers or viewing something disempowering or discouraging. Eating or participating in mobile, dry, or hot activities increases rajas, for example, by eating overly seasoned or excessively hot foods or taking part in excessive exercise or travel. Finally, eating or participating in light, subtle, or clear activities increase sattva. For example, eating a fresh moderate diet that is neither too salty nor too sweet, too spicy nor too bland, in addition to studying, meditating, or devotion.

Whether an aspiring yogi or an individual navigating this life, tipping the scales in the direction of sattva will aid in overcoming the cloudiness, melancholy, or angst that can overpower one’s success in the face of suffering, we’re all experiencing some form of discomfort. Still, the power lies in our personal choices. This knowledge is one thing, but what we do with it matters much more. The path is arduous, but if the outcome feels lighter, freer, and more transparent, isn’t it worth it?

For more information, please get in touch with Jessie for an Ayurvedic consultation, and she can explain in depth your constitution and simple dietary and lifestyle modifications that bring in more balance.


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