Everything in Prakriti consists of three gunas (qualities). In western understanding this is close to “energy”. These three qualities are present in all objects to varying degrees. One quality is always more present or dominant than the others. The three gunas are Sattva (light, perception, equanimity, stillness, balance), Rajas (fiery, transformational, action, movement) and Tamas (inertia, heaviness, darkness, sluggishness, inaction). The gunas are present in everything; humans, food, animate and inanimate things.
The gunas affect behaviour, attitudes, actions, relationships, decisions, attachments, etc. We can examine this in ourselves. When we eat a very heavy meal for example, we are dominated by Tamasica Guna, hence we feel heavy and slow. When we wake up at the hour of sunrise, provided we have had a good nourishing sleep, a more sattvica guna is present all around. A certain lightness pervades. Nights are dominated by Tamasica guna due to the lack of Sunlight. Our eyes also hence have difficulty to open up as soon as we wake up from sleep. Tamas induces sleep.
The body-mind organism is like mercury. Very unstable and can fluctuate very easily from one predominant guna to another.
Sattva – Harmony
Sattva manifests as purity, prideless-knowledge and harmony. It has the quality of goodness. It makes our mind to “levitate” from human struggle and strife, from effort, success and failure, pleasure and pain.
Even the light of the Sun is more Sattvic early in the morning, more Rajasic later in the morning, and Tamasic in the afternoon and again Sattvic by sunset and so on. Foods can also bring Sattvica guna as a reaction to their consumption. Fresh fruits and vegetables, provided they are consumed discerningly and appropriately, encourage a sattvic mind-body complex, and this has been extensively explored by Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine. The practice of inverted asanas also brings a sattvica quality to the mind-body complex. Sattva brings us closer to clear perception.
Rajas – Passion
Rajas is represented by passion, action and movement. Rajas is characterized by a desire driven mind. For desire to exist, there has to be attachment. Rajasica guna is necessary to learn. Without Rajas, we cannot overcome sluggishness, complacency and procrastination. But Rajas when out of control, leads to greed and arrogance which bring misery that comes from never being content. Yet it is a stepping stone to Sattva.
Tamas – Inertia
Tamas manifests as sleep which is necessary, but also as laziness, heaviness and darkness if out of control. When the mind is Tamasic, it is quite clouded. Away from clarity. Alcohol, overeating, oversleeping, long afternoon naps, foods that take more than 4 hours to digest, sugar, processed foods, all encourage tamasica guna. Tamasica guna too is necessary to be restful. But Tamasica guna should not be confused with Sattvic stillness. Too much Tamas leads to decay and drains vitality. Sorrow also is Tamasic in nature. Which is why we find it difficult to forget our pains and hurts. Tamas also feeds fear and the desire to gratify one’s senses.
The three modes of energy Sattva, Rajas and Tamas always co-exist. They cannot be separated. One guna can never dominate indefinitely. They are codependent and always changing.
So as we can see, Yoga does not see people as good or bad. Yoga looks at their body-mind to understand the Guna that dominates their life and seeks to help them (if they want to help themselves) to overcome the predominant tendencies towards rrajasica guna or tamasica guna, for these are the two extremes of the pendulum and most people fall from one extreme to the other. Sattva demands self-discipline and inquiry which is a more difficult path.
It is quite obvious that most sane and healthy people would choose Sattva over Rajas or Tamas. However, here is the true search of Yoga. It reveals to us our subtle attachments and greed. Greed is greed even if it is for clarity and knowledge. It is only when we realise that attachment to any of the three gunas, is nothing but expecting permanence from the impermanence of Prakriti, which is an unintelligent and unwise way of life, that we can abide in the acceptance of change. But we do so while carefully overcoming stagnation and complacency. We do so by moving closer to clear perception through the use of the body and breath and through our choices and decisions to avoid Tamas when unnecessary in our practical everyday life.