April 10, 2013

What’s Going on with your Gunas?

Photo: Hari Prasad Nadig

“Sattva, Rajas and Tamas: Qualities of the Mind.”

Many people have heard of the Ayurvedic system of the three doshas—Pitta, Vata and Kapha—but at the Yoga Journal Conference in New York last weekend, I attended a workshop exploring the gunas as well.

Hilary Garivaltis and Larissa Hall Carlson of Kripalu took us past all of the things we worry about with the doshas (Oh, I’m so scattered…I need grounding foods to calm my Vata imbalance!) to dig a little deeper into the idea of gunas. While the Ayurvedic doshas are often at least partially the constitution we are born with, the gunas are a result of our interaction with life; they are the qualities of our minds.

Hilary started us off with an explanation of the gunas, and what we should be striving for as a balance.

Rajas, is a quality characterized by movement and stimulation. It’s what makes us get up and go. If we didn’t have any rajas to our mental state, we’d probably stay in bed all day. However, too much rajas makes us aggressive and restless.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is tamas. We need a certain amount of tamas to calm down and settle in to quiet activities and rest. Too much tamas makes us lethargic and sluggish.

The balanced state we’d all like to have is sattva. Sattva is characterized by harmony, peacefulness and balance. This is what most of us who come to yoga and meditation are seeking: a place where our minds are still.

Immediately in the West we want to know what foods will fix it. What do we need to eat to make it all better? Should we do a cleanse?

While certain foods can help balance both our doshas and our gunas, there are many other practices that can help increase sattva and balance us. We will always need a bit of each of the gunas in order to maintain physical, mental and spiritual health, but we will be happiest when the predominant condition is sattva.

Larissa discussed a few ways we can increase sattva:

>> Dinacharya: Daily cleansing practices such as neti and tongue scraping.

>> Saucha: Purity! Another part of building sattva isn’t just our physical cleaning practices, but also making sure we are consuming good things with our minds as well. Taking in positive, uplifting music and movies, reading things that inspire us and minimizing our over-stimulation can be a big help.

>> Pranayama: our breath practices. While some breath practices help build our internal fire (I’m looking at you ujjayi breath), others help calm and balance us.

One such practice that we tried with Larissa is a long-time favorite of mine: Nadi Shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing.

Nadi Shodhana is a great way to calm down and feel refreshed. A cup of green tea and a few minutes of Nadi Shodhana around three in the afternoon when I’m dragging helps pick me right back up.

Below, Larissa demonstrates the practice:

We will all have days where we are sluggish and don’t feel like doing much. We will all have days where are are restless and pent up! Continuously seeking to increase sattva through our habits and practices will help us find the balance.


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