The Science and Ayurveda of the Three Gunas

The Science and Ayurveda of the Three Gunas

According to Yoga and Ayurvedic philosophy, there are two major experiences that make up all life. The first is called purusha or purush, which makes up the unmanifest world or the subtle realms. We relate to purusha mostly in a spiritual sense. Purusha means ‘soul’ or refers to the higher subtle and spiritual realms. The second, which is derived from purush, is called prakriti. This represents the manifest or material world. It is also called maya (illusion), in the context of the illusion the sensory material world provides us, distracting us from our true inner natures that exist beyond material life.

While purusha is non-changing, prakriti is ever-changing. One minute you are happy, the next you are sad. One day it is sunny, the next it is raining. The goal of Yoga and Ayurveda is to break the addiction to the world of illusion. When you do so, you can align yourself with the eternal and unchanging part of you waiting patiently within all of us: the soul.

In This Article

What Are The Three Gunas?

How does purush become prakriti? How does the unmanifest become manifest? Yoga and Ayurveda recognize that the first material manifestation of purush (pure consciousness) into matter is the three gunas. These represent the fundamental and underlying forces of creation.

  1. Sattva is the first to emerge. Like the light of the sun, sattva is the most subtle, pure, loving, and expansive.
  2. Rajas is the second to manifest. Rajas represent movement and action like the wind, thoughts, and desires.
  3. Tamas is the third and most dense aspect of the three gunas. Tamas represents darkness, density, heaviness, and earth.

You will find the three gunas in everything you see, touch, and feel. A flower, for example, the flower’s sattvic scent fills us with joy, its rajasic stem set on getting as close to the sun as possible, all while the tamasic roots anchor and ground the plant. We can look to wind as another example: wind is rajasic because of its need to move. However, it can be a warm, gently sattvic breeze, a tamasic and destructive tornado, or a rajasic wind that is constant, stimulating, and irritating.

According to Yoga and Ayurveda, disease and imbalance takes their first foothold at the precise moment that the unmanifest becomes manifest—when purush becomes prakriti. This is called Pragya Paradh, or the mistake of the intellect: where the mind starts to see itself as totally separate from the universal consciousness from which we came. Without the memory that the manifest and unmanifest are one, the body and mind seek temporary contentment through the senses.

This takes us from a sattvic (content) experience of life to a rajasic (sensorial) and tamasic (withdrawn or destructive) experience. We seek happiness through sensory stimulation, forgetting our more subtle inner nature. It is not too different from the fear many have of unleashing artificial intelligence (AI) into the world. The worry is that AI will forget its source and take rogue actions against humanity. Ayurveda says it is at this junction between the real and the illusion is where both disease and deep healing start. This is done by bringing the body’s awareness to the gap, or junction point, between consciousness (unmanifest) and matter (manifest) where the memory of pure consciousness can be restored.

Practice Tip: Go for a hike in the woods. Try to identify all three of the gunas in anything and everything along your way!

The Emotions of the Gunas

From the most subtle to the most elaborate fabric of creation, the gunas are the forces of nature that determine the quality of Prakriti (manifested, material world) we will live in. Consider that creation manifested itself from the sequential forces of sattva to rajas to tamas. Healing is done in the reverse order: from the illusion back to the real. Ayurvedic healing involves identifying the tamasic behaviors first, then the rajasic behaviors… all while guiding the experience of life back to sattva, which is experienced at the junction between consciousness and matter.

Emotionally, sattva is purity, harmony, and love. It is the ability to be content without needing a reason. Loving and giving to others is a natural instinct when the mind is sattvic. Rajasic behavior requires stimulation to be content, which begets more stimulation. This can result in burnout and the desire to withdraw and retreat into a tamasic protective shell. Tamasic behavior is heavy, dull, armored, introverted, fearful, and withdrawn.

The first step in this profound healing process is to Take our Emotional Body Type Quiz and find out exactly which of your emotions, behaviors, or mental attitudes are sattvic, rajasic, or tamasic. Next, evaluate all the tamasic behaviors first. In the quiz results, there are some tools to help make the transition from tamasic to rajasic.  This will help open the door to a sattvic life where the veil between the physical and spiritual has been thinned.

The Science Behind the Gunas

Oxytocin and Sattva

Sattvic behavior is verified by higher levels of the bonding, loving, and giving hormone called oxytocin. This longevity hormone surges when we stop needing love, stimulation, and attention from the outside world; when we begin to find the inner, lasting joy that comes from giving and caring for others without the need for a reward. It is full contentment without the need for the reward hormone (dopamine).

The health benefits of living a sattvic life include longevity and higher brain functioning, with specific brain wave patterns linked to higher states of consciousness. Among other benefits, sattvic behavior is related to a healthier microbiome, decreased stress, and positive or altruistic thinking.

See also The Science of Sattva  

Dopamine and Rajas

Rajasic behavior is measured by surges of dopamine—the ‘reward’ hormone. Studies show that dopamine receptors can become overstimulated, which leads to emotional highs and lows. Stimulating activities that result in a dopamine surge are followed by low dopamine levels. Low levels are linked to cravings, urges, depression, anger, and the need to seek out an even greater dopamine surge. Some major compulsive behaviors that cause dangerous spikes and depletions of dopamine are emotional eating, porn, masturbation, gaming, gambling, excessive internet use, shopping, thrill-seeking, novelty seeking, and recreational drugs including alcohol.

Depending on the intensity of the stimulating activity, it may be either rajasic or tamasic. During the early phases of overstimulation, the brain continues to seek out pleasure from activities that stimulate the limbic (emotional) system and frontal cortex: where the majority of the dopamine receptors live. This is classic rajasic behavior.

Reduced Dopamine Receptors and Tamas

Studies suggest that with chronic overstimulation of the brain’s dopamine reward centers, the number of available dopamine receptors in the brain decrease. Reduced receptors mean reduced interest in behaviors that were once so rewarding. This is when the pleasure of overstimulation during the rajasic period is replaced with an inability to gain pleasure—followed by a loss of the desire for stimulation. The lack of desire for stimulation results in tamasic behavior. The lack of dopamine receptors causes fear-based, introverted, withdrawn, and depressed behavior. Once you have entered into the protective tamasic ‘cocoon’, it can become too scary or unnerving to re-enter into normal behavior, work, or social interactions.

See also Ayurveda’s Take on Weed

Will A Dopamine Fast Change My Gunas?

Sadly, there is a trend of people becoming more tamasic as we age. Studies show that there is a 5–10% loss of dopaminergic neurons with each decade of aging. This may be due to an increase in brain oxidative damage, which is also associated with aging.

See also The Ancient Science of Brain Health: Understanding the Causes of Imbalance

A dopamine fast is a routine that removes activities that trigger the brain’s reward chemistry via a dopamine surge. To do a dopamine fast, you would first need to evaluate your addictions, compulsive behaviors, vices, and negative behavioral traits. One of the best ways to do that is to take our Emotional Body Type Quiz and identify those behaviors in your life. Ayurveda suggests that, instead of taking a global dopamine fast on every tamasic or rajasic behavioral trait you have, you can just pick one to start a dopamine fast.  Stop that one behavior and engage with the Self-Inquiry Guide around that issue. Once you have freed yourself from one tamasic behavior, you can go on to the next, feeling better about yourself each step of the way.

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Dr. John

1 thought on “The Science and Ayurveda of the Three Gunas”

  1. Hello Dr John,
    i have a question about the behaviours that give us dopamine, from an autistic spectrum point of view.
    Maybe you are not familiar with the term Stimming, used to describe certain actions that help a person self regulate, self soothe (usually peoplo who are inthe spectrum present more of these)
    is different from a nervous tick, as far as I read. cause it does give a feeling of calmness and satisfaction. moreover, trying to stop these behaviours in some individuals is very triggering, and also some of this stims can be somewhat harmful, like pulling hair, or scratching certain areas of the body, things like that. sorry if the description is vague, but u prolly can find clearer descriptions with an internet search. Does Ayurveda have a description/reasoning for this? thank you!


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