“Whether these ever-present characteristics or forms are manifest or subtle, they are composed of the primary elements called the three gunas.” ~ Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
In his Yoga Sutras, Patanjali outlines three psychological states present in all of us, otherwise known as the three gunas.
Rajas (creation) represents passion, activity, and energy. Imagine rajas moving around like a ping pong ball, or a pinball bouncing around inside the machine.
Tamas (destruction) is inertia, inactivity, and passivity. Imagine tamas as a sloth slowly moving across a branch in a rainforest.
Sattva (preservation) represent homeostasis and equilibrium, that sense of calmness we feel when all is right, our minds are clear, and we have a sense of serenity. Imagine a calming water as a breeze blowing to represent a state of sattva.
Our minds and bodies are always bouncing from one state to the other, but always seeking sattva to restore balance—for we all desire to be balanced and at ease.
I was first introduced to the concept of the gunas several years ago by way of diet, during a stay at the Sivananda Ashram. At the ashram, only certain foods are allowed—foods that support a sattvic lifestyle, or a sense of equilibrium. They don’t serve caffeine, alcohol, onions, or garlic. The diet is also ahimsa vegetarian: minimal dairy, which is procured by nonviolent means, and no meat products.
If we veer away from this type of diet, which is easy to do, we often find ourselves more tamasic or rajasic.
The gunas have implications far beyond diet. For instance, I recently stumbled upon a passage written by Swami Kripalu about the three gunas, and the three types of charity based upon them. The desired type of charity is of course, sattvic charity: charity given purely from the heart and anonymously, with no attachment to reward. I began to realize how the gunas relate to so much more than diet. More recently, I was attending Bessel van der Kolk’s training on trauma, and I began to notice how the gunas are also related to addiction and recovery.
When we move out of a state of sattva and into one of the others, we may lose or foundation and begin to look outside ourselves for relief. Nikki Myers speaks of this in her Yoga of 12 Step Recovery training and how grounding is an important component of our practice. While standing in tadasana, we are strong like mountains, grounding ourselves and focusing on our drishti. This posture is what a state of physical and mental sattva is like: we feel physically strong and mentally alert. When we feel this way, we are less likely to succumb to addiction (or more likely to be successful in our recovery).
But we are social creatures and cannot live in a vacuum, at least not the majority of us. Life happens, and often, it pulls us away from a state of sattva. Accidents occur; our time is limited and rushed; we are bombarded with financial or relationship problems; sometimes, we suffer from abuse or loneliness. We eat fast food or consume too much coffee. Even the addictions we succumb to are driven by either rajas or tamas.
So how can our knowledge of the gunas aid us in understanding our addictions and improving our recovery?
Live in the present moment.
Remember that each guna is temporary and that we are constantly in flux from one to another. One day we may feel more anxious and in a state of rajas. The next day, we may feel like a lazy sloth, only wanting to climb into bed and sleep.
When we find ourselves out of sattva, being mindful that it is temporary can help us get through it without engaging in unhealthy behaviors for temporary relief. If someone is feeling a bit tamasic, perhaps a brisk walk instead of a cup of coffee can help move them in the direction of sattva. A person feeling hyper-vigilant or rajasic may benefit from a round of alternate nostril breathing instead of a glass of wine.
Seek to add more sattvic foods to your diet, and reduce those that can bring us out of balance.
There is truth to the adage “we are what we eat.” If we consume more rajasic foods like onions and garlic, we are likely to find ourselves (and our bodily organs) in a state of hyperactivity. Caffeine is another culprit that can send us out of balance. Fast food can leave us tamasic and feeling tired.
Incorporating more fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes can help us maintain a state of sattva so that we aren’t seeking out unhealthy ways to relieve our imbalances. Changing our diet doesn’t mean we must go vegan, but small changes can make a big difference. Our digestive system will thank us, too.
Be around supportive and encouraging people.
Just like certain foods, people have a tendency to be predominantly encouraged by one of the three gunas. By seeking out people who are are more sattvic in nature, we may find ourselves influenced by their energy, making us calmer and more balanced. Similarly, if we are constantly around tamasic or rajasic people, their energy could begin to bring us down or make us anxious depending on their dispositions.
Avoid seeking temporary relief when out of sattva.
Addictions and the tendency to relapse are closely related to the three gunas. Feeling ungrounded can lead us to reach for relief outside of ourselves. Our drug of choice can also be a failed attempt to bring us to sattva. For example, a person who is feeling tamasic and depressed may reach for methamphetamine or cocaine, or a person feeling anxious and rajasic could reach for alcohol or opioids to find a state of temporary “sattva.” The problem is that this artificial sattva wears off, causing him to want more, thus relapsing—or worse, developing a new addiction that wasn’t present before.
Being mindful of our gunas can keep us grounded and focused, preventing or discouraging relapse or the development of new addictive behaviors. Just like our yoga practice goes on until death, so too does the road to recovery. The two walk hand in hand.
“We are all just walking each other home.” ~ Ram Dass
Author: Angela Still
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Catherine Monkman