Letting the Dark Guna Do Its Thing
My spirits were soaring high after my morning yoga class today, so it was in contrasting moods that my friend and I met up after class to talk about our summer plans. Jacqui, a fellow yoga teacher and one of the most energetic people I know, has been searching for a new apartment for months now. Unfortunately, every place she visits seems like it’s either crumbling, dirty or too far out of her price range. Today her mood was so low she could barely perk up to talk.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “I can usually brush things off, but I’m just feeling so disappointed.” She explained that she felt like her life was in limbo, that she couldn’t make her next move or come to the next chapter of her life until she had a new space to claim as her own.
As I listened to her, I thought of the gunas, the three qualities of nature that exist in different proportions—sattva (purity), rajas (movement) and tamas (stillness). It is said that every manifestation of nature—a rock, a carrot, your cousin Larry—is made up of the gunas. To be in balance is to let sattva shine through in its goodness and clarity. In order to do that, one must practice her yoga postures, thereby engaging in a rajasic activity.
But tamas, although necessary and present in every being, has earned a reputation for spoiling the guna balance. In his introduction to Light on Yoga, for instance, Yehudi Menuhin describes tamas as, “(the dark and restraining quality), which obstructs and counteracts the tendency of rajas to work and sattva to reveal.” If tamas were a person, it’d be the tatted-up, pack-a-day lover you don’t bring home to momma. Privately, though, this tamas character would caress and cradle you like no one else has.
To keep my own gunas in their ideal balance, it’s the tamasic qualities I’m generally fighting off. My inclination is to sleep long and lazily, to lie around reading, to eat to fullness, to sit on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and the remote by my side. Jacqui, on the other hand, has admitted that her dominating characteristic is rajasic—she’s always on the move, onto the next big project, unable to sit, unwilling to relax.
Jacqui is probably a better new-millennial kid than I am. These days, rajas is in. It’s rajas that propels a person to strike deals on her Bluetooth while she shops for toothpaste and balances her checkbook. It’s a rajasic tendency that values doing over being. All of which makes me wonder, perhaps out of self-interest, could tamas be just the antidote an acquisitive culture needs?
Part of what Jacqui was experiencing this morning, I suppose, was discomfort in tamas. She has been so bent on moving, and moving fast, that sitting still and waiting feels like some kind of cruel prison sentence. Before we left each other today, we agreed to meet up for hiking and a book club later in the week—and I’m glad. Her energetic spirit can be just the spark I need to get up off of my comfortable seat and move around. And I suspect that my own unwound, tamasic energy—yes, the dark, obstructive parts of me—might help to remind her that it’s okay to relax, that there is much to be learned from stillness.
One posture that helps me embrace my tamasic side is baddha konasana, the bound-angle pose. To get into it, ground your sit bones firmly; press the feet together; sit tall; engage mula bandha (tighten the space under your pelvis); and imagine a tree that must set roots far down into the earth in search of a water source. Simply sit for a few minutes and know that you are at home wherever there is ground beneath you.
I’d love to know: Which guna is your dominant one?