As you dive deeper into your yoga practice, you will inevitably hear about Samkhya, one of India’s most ancient philosophical schools – and the foundation of yogic philosophy. The word Samkhya means “empiric”, suggesting that mere theory is not enough to overcome suffering, and that true knowledge stems from personal experience.
Samkhya philosophy regards the universe as consisting of two elements: Purusha (consciousness) and Prakriti (matter).
Purusha is the eternal, all-pervading, and unchanging consciousness. It can also be referred to as the “spirit” or “true Self” that is present in everything. More accurately, you could say that everything exists within Purusha. Purusha is the eternal experiencer, free from cause and effect, without beginning and end.
Prakriti is the primordial substance of which all matter is composed. In other words: All matter, tangible and intangible, is a manifestation of Prakriti. If Purusha is the container that holds everything, Prakriti is the content that is being held. Unlike Purusha, Prakriti is changing. Constantly fluctuating, it creates a continuous flow of temporary experiences for Purusha.
Since birth, our attention is drawn to the ever-changing world around us: we are endlessly exploring and interacting with it. As a result, the mind gets entangled in the phenomenal world that alternately brings pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow. Because we struggle to grasp what lies beyond the limited perception of our senses, this experience – Prakriti – becomes our reality. We are led to believe that this is all there is – forgetting Purusha, our true and unchanging essence. That is, we forget what we are, where we are, and why we are here.
This disconnection gives rise to Ahamkara – the ego and sense of separation. Thus, it is the root cause of all suffering, such as fear, anxiety, and grief. Realizing this, ancient yogis used meditation as a tool to discern the true Self within, distinct from passing experiences. Therefore, the ultimate goal of yoga is to disassociate Purusha from Prakriti and thus to realize one’s true Self – free from any kind of bondage.
What are the Three Gunas?
According to Samkhya philosophy, there are three Gunas – three qualities of Prakriti that are present in all living and non-living things in the universe. Depending on the context, the Sanskrit word Guna means “string” or “thread”, but can also be translated as “quality” or “virtue”.
Each Guna represents certain characteristics. Like strands of a rope, they weave together to form the fabric of the manifested world. Therefore, all that can be known in this universe is a manifestation of the Gunas. These Gunas are: Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas.
Philosophically, the theory of the three Gunas explains the make-up of the universe. But more important in daily life is an understanding of how the Gunas influence our thoughts and emotions. Once you can observe the Gunas at work, you’ll be able to better understand and navigate your emotional world.
Tamas is a state of ignorance, apathy, and delusion. Translating to “darkness”, this heavy, dense energy has the power to obscure the true Self.
Although Tamas usually gets a bad rap, it can provide a steadying influence in life: In your asana practice, for example, it grounds your feet and brings stability to the postures. When you’re sick, bed rest can lead to healing.
But when Tamas is dominant, you become paralyzed – bound in unhealthy patterns of addiction, attachment, and depression. You might find yourself in a spiral of negative thoughts – beating yourself up for past mistakes or complaining about your lot in life. You might find it hard to get out of bed, feel unmotivated to pursue even your hobbies, and be drawn to numbing yourself with mindless entertainment. Other tamasic qualities are dullness, laziness, resentment, fear, and greed.
“That action is declared to be in the mode of ignorance, which is begun out of delusion, without thought to one’s own ability, and disregarding consequences, loss, and injury to others.”Bhagavad Gita 18.25
Rajas is a state of passion, desire, and activity. As one of the three forces of nature, Rajas governs birth, growth, and movement – opposed to Tamas, the state of destruction, death and decay.
Rajas is also the energy of change. It is future-oriented and often manifests as longing, yearning, and desire. Its activity drives us either toward a more sattvic state (increased consciousness) or tamasic state (increased ignorance). Thus, Rajas can have both a positive or negative impact on our lives. However, it is mainly defined as agitated, restless, and unsteady – constantly fluctuating between euphoria and anger, confidence and fear, enthusiasm and anxiety.
Rejoicing in sensual pleasures, Rajas binds us to attachment, to the fruits of our action, and to indulgence of any kind. Thus, a person driven by Rajas works to obtain wealth and fame. They can be perceived as self-centered and egoistic – often acting without considering the feelings of the people around them.
“Action that is prompted by selfish desire, enacted with pride, and full of stress, is in the nature of passion.”Bhagavad Gita 18.24
Sattva is a state of harmony, balance, purity, and wisdom. It’s the feeling of peace you experience when you’re deep in meditation, watching a picturesque sunset, or moving your body in perfect synchronicity with your breath.
Other sattvic qualities are compassion, empathy, fulfillment, calmness, bliss, equanimity, and selflessness.
Sattva is not enlightenment itself. Rather, it acts like transparent glass, allowing the light of awareness to shine through in order to reveal what is good and true (sat). Thus, cultivating Sattva is an essential step on the path toward liberation.
“Action that is in accordance with the scriptures, which is free from attachment and aversion, and which is done without desire for rewards, is in the mode of goodness.”Bhagavad Gita 18.23
Working with the Three Gunas
According to Samkhya philosophy, the three Gunas are not present in either-or fashion. Rather, everyone and everything is made up of different combinations of all three. Depending on a multitude of factors, one Guna becomes more active, predominating over the others. Thus, our experience of life is shaped by the constantly changing relationship of the Gunas.
In humans, the interplay of the three Gunas determines our personality. Despite the fact that the proportions of the Gunas are always changing within us, one is typically dominant. This primary Guna acts as a lens that affects our perceptions and perspective of the world around us. Thus, it influences our behavior, the way our mind functions, which emotions we tend to experience, and the state of our physical and energetic bodies.
By practicing yoga, we become capable of changing the proportions of the Gunas within ourselves – in turn changing the way we think, feel, and act. This improves our wellbeing, and most importantly, helps to attune our minds in a way that is fit for realizing the true Self.
Reducing Tamas can be challenging because this Guna makes us feel lazy, heavy, and stuck – but a few lifestyle tweaks help: Avoid oversleeping, inactivity, and watching television. Instead, try to wake up early and raise your energy levels. Exercise or go for a run, seek out new environments, and surround yourself with uplifting people to clear out the stagnant energy of Tamas.
Ayurvedic practitioners recommend staying away from tamasic foods – such as foods that are stale, impure, and hard to digest. Other tamasic foods include meat, fish, garlic, onion, alcohol, and other intoxicants. Refrain from over-eating and consume a light diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, minimally prepared.
Going from Tamas directly to Sattva is difficult: In a tamasic state, your mind is dulled, so practices aimed to increase Sattva – like meditation and self-reflection – might just lull you to sleep. Tamas also strengthens the ego and obscures our true Self, making it harder to transcend towards the higher vibrational state of Sattva.
The step in between? Apply the opposing energy of Rajas Guna. If your yoga practice tends to be slow and gentle, switch it up and try a more vigorous and dynamic Vinyasa Flow. Make sure to include a few rounds of Surya Namaskar and energizing breathwork, such as Kapalabhati Pranayama. To focus your mind, instead of seated meditation, try a movement-based practice like walking meditation.
As we move away from Tamas, it’s important not to move too far into a state of Rajas: before you start feeling restless, stressed, and frustrated, it’s time to slow down. Stay away from busy environments and avoid over-working, over-exercising, and over-consuming. Learn to appreciate the subtle, sattvic pleasures of life by journaling, spending time in nature, and seeking silence.
Dietary changes can also have a powerful effect on Rajas Guna: Make sure to sit down for every meal, take a moment of gratitude, and eat slowly. Avoid rajasic, or stimulant, foods such as caffeinated drinks, spicy food, fried food, or food that is overly salty. Ayurvedic practitioners suggest consuming plenty of leafy greens like spinach and kale.
Recharge your batteries with a restorative yoga practice. Add calming pranayama, such as Nadi Shodana or Sheetali, designed to quiet the mind, soothe the nervous system, and cool down your body. If you’re prone to overthinking, try a mantra meditation to focus your mind. These practices will help you balance your energy and transition into a more peaceful state of mind – Sattva.
To cultivate Sattva, expand your yoga practice beyond the physical postures to include all Eight Limbs of Yoga, starting with the Yamas and Niyamas. These practices elevate your consciousness and nurture qualities like compassion, selflessness, and tranquility.
This is supported by a healthy lifestyle: make sure to get enough sleep, wake up at dawn (the early hours of the morning are the most favorable time for meditation), and eat well. It’s recommended to consume a whole-food, plant-based diet consisting of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds – seasonal and organic whenever possible. In Ayurveda, these are considered sattvic foods: natural, vital, and beneficial for body and mind.
Some people say that you are what you eat. But what you consume goes beyond your diet: Be mindful of your environment, the movies you watch, the people you surround yourself with, and the interests you pursue. Over time, you will realize that everything you consume through your five senses influences your state of mind: The more you’re exposed to one Guna, the more it will grow.
Last but not least, show up in the world in a way that benefits all beings – without expecting anything in return. Selfless service, called Karma Yoga, reduces egoic tendencies and reconnects us to our Divine essence.
Transcending the Three Gunas
While yogic practices naturally foster Sattva, we have to remember that this is not the ultimate goal of yoga. In the end, all qualities – whether good or bad, wanted or unwanted – are attributes of Prakriti. Thus, they keep us confined to the limitations of our ego.
The true Self, however, is described as nirguna which means “without attributes or qualities”. Therefore, yoga is not about becoming better, it’s about realizing what you really are.
Sattva provides fertile ground for this journey of self-realization. That’s why it’s an important step in order for us to realize Truth, which is beyond all Gunas, including Sattva itself. This realization results in moksha – spiritual liberation.
“The persons who are transcendental to the three Gunas neither hate illumination (which is born of Sattva), nor activity (which is born of Rajas), nor even delusion (which is born of Tamas), when these are abundantly present, nor do they long for them when they are absent. They remain neutral to the modes of nature and are not disturbed by them. Knowing it is only the Gunas that act, they stay established in the self, without wavering.”Bhagavad Gita 14.22-23
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