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Yoga Beyond the Three Gunas

Urban Sadhu Exploration February 2024

BG 14.20 guṇān etān atītya trīn dehī deha-samudbhavān

janma-mṛityu-jarā-duḥkhair vimukto ’mṛitam aśhnute

Meaning: By transcending the three gunas, the qualities of nature associated with the body, one becomes free from birth, death, disease, old age, and misery, and obtains the awareness of true immortality beyond the body and mind. – Interpretation, Austin Sanderson

All spiritual traditions try and explain the world that we interact with around us; yoga is no exception. Yoga philosophy states that all matter in the universe arises from fundamental reactant called prakriti. Within prakriti there are three energetics called gunas. Guna is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as “quality,” “tendency,” “nature,” “attribute,” or “peculiarity.” The three gunas create the essential aspects of all of nature – vigor, form, and consciousness. There are three gunas in nature, and each is responsible for specific energetics: sattva guna (focused and temperate), rajas guna (active and hot) and tamas guna (inactive and cold). The three gunas are important in yoga because they help us to understand our own nature and how to achieve balance and harmony in our lives.


The gunas are also tattvas, a Sanskrit term that means “thatness.” Tattvas are “impressions” that constitute the human experience. A guna is a fundamental quality of nature, while a tattva is a specific manifestation of a guna. For example, sattva guna is the quality of harmony and balance, while a sattvic tattva could be something like a clear, steady, and focused mind. Tattva impressions affect our physical, energetic, emotional, and psychological state. It is said that the three gunas are in a constant state of flux, intermixing and creating tattvas that are not purely sattva, raja, or tamas but a combination. This interplay and mixing of the gunas is why nature is so complex and constantly changing and evolving. The same is true of humans: for some people, at 10am we are full of energy, but by 3pm we are taking a nap; others have the opposite experience – at 10am they are still in bed and at 3pm are starting to become active. The tattva of the gunas can be highly influential on the rhythmic patterns that one may gravitate toward and experience.


Sattva guna is an energetic state of harmony, balance, joy, focus, intelligence and temperateness. Sattva is the energetic all yogis strive toward: by reducing rajas and tamas, and developing sattva we make moksha (liberation) possible while we are still in the body. This is the state of the Jivanmukta, a quality of self-control, joy, harmony, happiness, contentment, calmness, satisfaction, wholeness, compassion, selflessness, and unconditional love. Meditation, pranayama and Bhakti Yoga are considered to be sattva energetics.


Rajas guna is an energetic of high energy, passionate, action, activity, quickness, movement, and heat. Emotionally it is a longing for and attachment to constant movement. Rajas binds us to the fruits of our actions, making us expect that all actions will bear only sweet karmic returns. Rajas is the quality of anxiety, manic behavior, anger, fear, worry, restlessness, struggle, and determination. If channeled correctly it’s the “get up and go” we need in life, but when it is misguided it’s the destructive energy of chaos and anarchy.


Tamas guna is an energetic of low energy, inactivity, dullness, laziness, disinterest, inertia, and lack of awareness. The energetic of tamas has the ability to manifest itself into a stubborn, dogged determination that is unwilling to change physically, mentally, emotionally or spiritually, in spite of good reasons to change. Tamas is dark depression, moroseness, helplessness, grief, confusion, apathy, addiction, sadness, and self-pity. Tamas is stuck in the mud of life and can’t get itself out.


All gunas create attachment and bind us to our ego personalities. For those practicing yoga, awareness of the gunas and their effects on our nature is like installing a navigation system in a car. We can choose to go in a different direction because we can see what is going on. Starting to cultivate the ability to identify sattva guna, rajas guna, and tamas guna within ourselves brings us closer to being able to make choices of balance over imbalance, harmony over dissonance, peace over conflict, and non-violation over violating. Understanding how gunas interact within us lets us make choices that bring us closer to the goal of yoga.


It is advisable for the dedicated yogi to cultivate sattva guna over tamas or rajas. But all three gunas are always present, and it is understood that in the yoga practice a yogi will need to call upon a lower or higher guna to overcome the tattva of one guna’s energetic. If one is feeling lazy and lifeless, a vigorous vinyasa practice will reverse the tattva of tamas guna; or if one is hyper-energetic, then the practice of yoga nidra will reverse the tattva of rajas guna. When the yogi is in a sattva state, any yoga technique can be applied, and the mind will remain sattvic: in a sattvic state, all yoga techniques will continue to open up new dimensions of consciousness. We can cultivate sattva guna by practicing yoga, eating a pure vegan diet, and spending time in nature.


Yoga is beyond the three gunas, and the ultimate goal of yoga is to transcend all three gunas. To transcend the gunas means to be free from their influence. For the yogi to make progress on the path toward yoga one must practice “self-observation” and discernment by becoming the witness to ourselves. By seeing the connection between our thoughts, words, or actions and the gunas we can practice healthy detachment, which brings us closer to our true nature of yoga and the Higher Self. To be beyond the gunas means to exist in a state of pure consciousness.  

Austin Sanderson – Urban Sadhu


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