Why You Need to Know About the Three Gunas

By Sheila Miller
Published: October 25, 2018 | Last updated: July 23, 2020
Key Takeaways

Understanding how the gunas play a role in your personal life will help you become more self-confident on your path to spiritual liberation.

Source: Elena Ray/

Recently, one of my teachers devoted a two-hour teaching session to the importance of self-confidence. We all know that self-importance looks like the-world-revolves-around-me syndrome, but we see true confidence less often. In the context of spiritual practice, self-confidence is the unshakable certainty that we can attain liberation, which is the goal of our spiritual practice.


Many of us know that the practice helps us, but do it without believing that we could become fully awake. Understanding the nature of the three gunas can help us put less faith in the obstacles that stand in our path and more into our ability to choose our own way forward. So, if you'd like to learn how, this article is dedicated to explaining what gunas are and how to balance them.

The Three Gunas

According to Sankya philosophy, all of existence began as consciousness. Then, out of the desire to experience itself, the soul aspect (purusha) manifested. The whole of the manifest world is prakriti, and prakriti has three basic building blocks. Just as all colors can be created from combinations of the three primary colors of red, yellow and blue, so, too, is all of experience and all of creation formed from three aspects, or gunas: sattva, rajas and tamas. These three qualities are the ingredients of all mental and physical existence.


Sattva Guna

Sattva guna is the characteristic of lucidity. Clarity, balance and evenness are all markers of sattva guna. Physical bodies in sattva guna are in a relaxed, responsive state of physical health. The mind is free from grasping and excessive activity, and it shines with natural luminosity.

Through the practice of yoga, we attempt to bring ourselves into this guna, and to reinforce the properties of sattva guna when we find them.

Rajas Guna

Rajas is the characteristic of action: will, determination, creative energy, movement and also anger. Excessive physical and mental movement are markers of rajas.


Rajas can be used in our practice as an antidote to tamas, but is not in and of itself a desirable state of being.

Tamas Guna

Of all the gunas, tamas is the most dangerous to ourselves, to others and to our practice. Tamas is marked by inertia and darkness; by delusion, fear, resentment, greed and attachment.

(More on the detriment of attachment in The Wisdom of Non-Attachment and 3 Ways to Practice This Freeing Yogic Principle.)

Learning to See the Play of Gunas in Daily Life

Part of the reason to have a morning practice is to establish ourselves as much as possible in sattva guna. By consciously cultivating a balanced, luminous quality to our body and mind, we have much better chance of seeing imbalance coming and avoiding it.

Otherwise, we are like seaweed at the mercy of the currents, turning and twisting with the ebb and flow of the gunas with no control of ourselves. Excessive rajas often burns us out, leading us to periods of depletion (tamas). Tamas leads to itself: Attachment leads to more attachment, not liberation.

Tools for Balancing the Gunas

Thankfully, our tools in the precious human life empower us to impact the play of the gunas in our own minds, bodies and lives. Everything we do, think, eat, watch, read and experience either draws us closer to balance or pushes us away from it. Through deliberate choices, we can train ourselves out of attachment, fear and restless toward balance and generosity.

(It may help you balance the gunas by also Balancing Yin and Yang.)

How to Balance Tamas

To be in tamas guna is to be governed by fear, greed, attachment and delusion. It’s miserable. And it’s how many of us spend much of our time.

The good news is that when we recognize tamas guna for what it it is — in particular, when we learn to see that it is not us or our nature — we can begin to move out of tamas through skillful means.

One way to balance tamas is through the application of rajas. If we are feeling constant craving for material objects, we can choose to practice generosity, or seva. If we have a habit of procrastination, we can give ourselves a schedule, putting the most important or least pleasant things first.

Avoiding heavy foods and environments that foster the attachment or delusion we are fighting also helps bring us to balance. In addition, we can cultivate sattva guna in our asana, pranayama and meditation practices.

How to Balance Rajas

Tamas does not balance rajas, it only increases tamas. To balance excessive movement or force, we bring ourselves to balance rather than swing to torpor. Similarly, delusion is not a remedy for an overly-excitable mind.

To balance rajas, we must cultivate sattva. One of the ways to do so is in the context of our practice. We can then extend the principles we learn there to the rest of our lives.

Suppose we are doing an asana, like warrior two. To find sattva guna, we are looking for that place of balance where no part of us is being lazy, but no part of us is being competitive or working too hard, either. We aim for full engagement with the pose — nothing more, nothing less.

How to Balance Sattva

Even sattva guna is still a guna and, as such, its nature is to change. We don’t wish to identify ourselves even with sattva guna, but rather to learn to cultivate sattva guna as it is most conducive to joy, clarity and yogic practice.

Not Getting Caught Up

Thinking of our experiences in the context of the gunas helps us to take them less personally. When we think, "Wow, I’m experiencing a lot of craving," rather than "Wow, I just always want more and will never be happy," we’re seeing the play of the gunas rather than identifying with them.

If you are like most people, you haven’t yet believed that you can truly attain liberation in this one lifetime. If you wrote down the reasons it wasn’t possible for you, how many would be the play of the gunas rather than your essential nature? Probably most. As an experiment, you might give yourself a week, month or year during which you allow yourself that degree of self-confidence. What will you change when you have such faith in yourself?

(Continue reading in The Path to Liberation Starts With Our First Step Off the Mat.)

During These Times of Stress and Uncertainty Your Doshas May Be Unbalanced.

To help you bring attention to your doshas and to identify what your predominant dosha is, we created the following quiz.

Try not to stress over every question, but simply answer based off your intuition. After all, you know yourself better than anyone else.

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Written by Sheila Miller

Sheila Miller

Sheila Miller, Ph.D., ERYT-500 is a Senior Teacher of ISHTA Yoga and has been a student of yoga and Buddhism for more than 20 years. Her specializations include teaching meditation, asana and yoga nidra for healing, self-knowledge and lasting personal transformation. She researches the effects of meditation and yoga practice on learning, communities, health and the healing of trauma. She also teaches public and private classes, workshops and retreats around the world.

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