The Play of the Three Gunas

What can we learn about balance from Yoga Philosophy? Esther Ekhart explains about the interplay of the three Gunas.

The play of the 3 gunas

The Three Gunas

The ancient teachings of yoga, like the Samkhya Philosophy and also the Bhagavad Gita, talk about three essential aspects of nature. These are called the Gunas.

Gunas in Sanskrit means a strand or a rope. All of creation (Prakriti or universal nature) is made up of these three qualities called :

1. Tamas

Tamas which manifests as darkness, inertia, lethargy, dullness, illusion, heaviness. Tamas can be seen as the past, your lot in life, the given.

2. Rajas

Rajas which manifests as the energy of passion, emotion, desire, activity, sorrow. Rajas can be seen as the future, desire, externalization.

3. Sattva

Sattva which is associated with the principles of harmony, knowledge, happiness and goodness. Sattva is the present, awakening, the process of consciousness unfolding. It transcends tension between the two above and it is the desirable quality of the three.

All levels of manifestation

According to the ancient teachings, everything, on all levels of manifestation is made up of different combinations of these three strands or qualities. They underlie matter, life and mind.

Every experience we have is composed of the three gunas in different proportions. These three qualities are in a constantly changing relationship with each other.

Dominant Gunas

When one of the gunas is dominant, this is what happens:

When we feel mostly sattvic we feel clear, calm and harmonious
rajasic state means you feel passionate, hyper active, the mind keeps going, not being able to stop.

When we feel tamasic we can’t get out of bed, feeling unmotivated, dragging ourselves through the day.

We need all three qualities in our life. Tamas makes us stop and rest, we need rajas to get us going in the morning, we need sattva to understand and get clarity and wisdom.

The Full Circle

Now here is an example of how the three gunas act on each other with regards to how we feel and our moods.  

Say we have a sattvic mood, we are content with life as it unfolds, being present. This may last for a while, but then it tends to becomes over ripe and the contentment turns into becoming a bit lazy and you take it for granted. This then has turned into a tamasic mood, and turns into you being unmotivated and heavy. The rajas mood will then in turn break up the tamasic state. You will get sick of your heaviness and start doing something to get going, through ambition and passion. But then of course its excess – hyperactivity, anxiety lie around the corner. The state of chaos that rajas will get you into will make you stop and contemplate and we come back into the sattvic state of understanding and clarity.

This will keep repeating itself through life, it is just the three gunas acting on each other, the nature of life.

Finding Balance with the Wisdom of the Gunas

If we don’t know that this is just what happens we can get very attached to the different states, believing that the sattvic state is where we are supposed to be all the time, or at least doing what you need to do to get there. But this is already rajas kicking in, so it will never work!

The practice of yoga is not to make you sattvic – because you now know, tamas will naturally follow, so you will be disappointed!  What you want, is to be OK with it all! That is balance.

When we are not attached to a sattvic state, or for example to a good meditation, this will transform it into sattvic state. When the mind creates an ideal, you will become rajasic etc…

Really it is humorous. Mystical experiences occur when we clearly see all experience is the three gunas acting on the three gunas… we don’t identify when we are sattvic. Then when we move into a tamasic state, we observe it as the natural pattern of change, and then when passions arise, bringing ideas to stir things up, again it is just the gunas acting on the gunas.

It is about appreciating the process of life as it unfolds. If we don’t understand we become attached, obsessed and ultimately disappointed.


Yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar writes that stability is something we can practice and, ultimately, master. The path to cultivating that stability is through balance, which he defines as being present in the here and now.

Being present in the here and now transcends needing to be in a particular state or mood to make that happen. You can be present feeling tamasic, rajasic and sattvic!

Knowing all these states will follow each other will make it easier to step back and enjoy seeing life unfolding itself and do its thing.

So observe and be present rather than getting caught up believing you need to be a certain way.

I hope this brings some perspective to the search for balance / happiness 🙂

With love,

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Esther EkhartEsther Ekhart, face and founder of EkhartYoga, brings years of personal yoga and meditation practice, therapy training and study of yoga philosophy into her teaching.