Philosophy of Yoga – The Gunas

Los Alamos

No, I’m not talking about the movie Goonies, which was a classic and major stepping stone for many of today’s most famous actors. And, when we explore the gunas and the concept of energy, the film could even be broken down into different components which you will find in today’s article.

The gunas are three types of energy and come from the Sankhya philosophy. Guna translates to yarn or quality. Consider threading (sewing) things together. The three gunas are present in everything, including ourselves. These are qualities that are found in everything.

A desk, a tablet and a car are all forms of energy – each vibrates at a speed that allows you to see it, touch it and use it. Our thoughts, emotions and feelings also have energy.

The gunas are a form of yogic anatomy called the subtle body. You might think of gunas as how you react to any situation that arises or how your personal energy comes and goes over the course of a day. However, the food, thoughts, movements and objects around you also possess these energies.

Each guna has its own attributes:

  • Sattva – stability, calm, harmony, compassionate altruistic action, truth, presence
  • Rajas – restlessness, restlessness, action, change, movement
  • Tamas – inert, dull, slow to change, inactivity

The three gunas are present in all sentient and non-sentient things. However, the amount of each guna varies depending on the item. Human beings have a unique ability to alter gunas in body and mind. You can never get rid of a guna but you can adjust its level. We change our gunas by changing our interactions with others, our lifestyle and our thoughts.

For example, say you are late for work, school or meeting a friend, rajas is the dominant energy. If you close or turn away feelings or settings, tamas is now in control. When you are hiking, running, walking and feeling satisfied with the movement and beauty around you, you can feel sattvic energy.

Food and drink can also be classified by gunas.

Suppose you receive a latte from the Film Festival. Yogis would say that an atte a rajo guna. If I drink it, my mind absorbs the rajo guna and I might get restless (caffeinated). Alcohol, sugar, or marijuana can make you feel lethargic. Not only is the source tamo guna, but your mind also becomes more tamasic. Sattvic foods include things like salad, brown rice, vegetables.

When you choose what you eat or drink, you also choose your state of consciousness. Now you can also eat too much of these foods and alter their energy quality. We can also use food to get us out of various states. If I feel too tamasic, I might choose a caffeinated drink to give me more rajasic energy.

People and places also have different energetic qualities. Tamasic environments can be the DMV, a funeral or a meeting. Rajasic settings could be Costco, sporting events, or even Friday night concerts. A sattvic environment would be a yoga studio, a church, or in nature.

People not only have gunas, but because of our consciousness we also absorb the energy around us. Those suffering from depression may have too much tamasic energy while those suffering from anxiety may have too much rajasic energy. I’m sure you know people who have different energies and how they affect you when you’re with them.

Again, everything has energy. If you see litter on the sidewalk or graffiti on the wall, it might depress you – that’s tamasic energy. Everything has a guna effect. If you have a porsche, that can create sattva energy for you, but if you are worried about car payments and the car gets scratched, that is rajas energy. Or you see someone in a gas-guzzling car and it disgusts you, it’s tamas energy.

For some of us the pull of energy is very weak or can be quite extreme. Watching our energies shift and change is an important part of getting to know ourselves and this yoga practice off the mat. If you know you are going into a rajasic situation, you could take steps to find more tamas or sattva. Maybe you take a few deep breaths before interacting with someone, or you spend time meditating.

The gunas are intertwined with each other, almost like a dance. You can think of them this way too – tamas is our base and foundation, rajas gives us vitality and breath, and sattva provides awareness and compassion.

In yoga and in life, the gunas can help us navigate life and the world around us. When you can witness or notice your energy, you can make conscious choices and work toward greater balance and harmony in any situation.

Jacci Gruninger is a Certified Yoga Therapist, Thai Massage Therapist and Focus Coach. She has been teaching for over two decades and spent 12 of those years training yoga teachers for the Pranakriya School of Yoga Healing Arts. She helps her clients navigate life’s ups and downs through yoga, meditation, breathwork and strength training. Her yoga therapy center is at 190 Central Park Square #212. For in-person and online teaching schedules and other services, visit

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