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20 Gunas (Qualities) of Ayurveda

Updated: Mar 23

Ayurveda utilizes a concept of 20 Qualities (10 pairs of opposites) to help you find daily balance in your life. You can find these 20 gunas in the Ashtanga Hridayam, an ancient Ayurvedic text, in Sutrasthana 1/18.


गुरुमनद्हिमस्नग्धश्लक्षणसान्द्रमृदुस्थिरा: |

गुणा: ससूक्षमविशदा विशाति: सविपर्यया: ||१८​||


Guru (heavy), mañda (slow), hima (cold), snigdha (unctuous), ślakṣṇa (smooth), sāñdra (solid) mṛdu (soft), sthira (stable), sūkṣma (minute, subtle) and viśada (non-slimy)--these ten along with their respective opposites--are the twenty gunas (qualities, properties of substances).1



the ocean meeting the sand


Here is a chart of the ten pairs of the gunas (qualities) in English from the above sutra (sutra meaning a thread or line of text). This list contains the ten gunas (qualities), plus their opposites.


Heavy

Light

Slow/dull

Penetrating, sharp

Cold

Hot

Oily, unctuous

Dry

Smooth

Rough

Dense, solid

Liquid

Soft

Hard

Static, stable

Mobile

Minute, subtle

Gross

Clear, non-slimy

Sticky, slimy

There are several interesting things about this chart.


First of all, all of the qualities in the left column, except for the last two describe kapha dosha (to read more about the doshas, please check here). The opposites of the last two qualities also describe kapha dosha. If you learn this list of 20 gunas and their opposites, then you know the qualities of kapha dosha (first column, except the last two) and the qualities that will both aggravate (first column, except the last two) and pacify (second column, except the last two) kapha dosha.


Secondly, I had a teacher who explained to me that she thinks the list is a little like the yin and yang symbol used in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine). Within the white, there is a black dot and within the black, there is a white dot. In the same way, in the list of qualities that are building (the left column in the chart above), there are two that are reducing and in the list of the qualities that are reducing (the right column in the chart above), there are two that are building.




yin and yang symbol
The symbol of yin and yang

The other interesting thing is that yin and yang are concepts of building/nourishing and reducing/depleting respectively in TCM. So, if you do activities that are "yin" you increase body mass and if you do activities that are "yang" you decrease body mass.


The same is true with the list of qualities above. If you have a predominance of qualities in the first column of the chart, with the exception of the final two, you will see the body build and increase. If you have a predominance of qualities in the second column of the chart, with the exception of the final two, then you will see the body reduce or decrease.


Ayurveda has terms for these concepts which are similar to yin and yang. Brimhana or Santarpana are building, and Langhana or Apatarpana are reducing.


So, we could also change the chart above to look like this with the last two qualities switching columns to indicate which qualities are building and which are reducing.


Brimhana/Santapana/Building

Langhana/Apatarpana/Reducing

Heavy

Light

Slow/dull

Penetrating, sharp

Cold

Hot

Oily/Unctuous

Dry

Smooth

Rough

Dense, solid

Liquid

Soft

Hard

Static, stable

Mobile

Gross

Minute, subtle

Sticky, slimy

Clear, non-slimy


Why are these 20 Gunas (Qualities) of Ayurveda Important to You?


You can keep your body and mind balanced by being aware of these 20 gunas (or qualities) in your body.


The basic rule is that like increases like, and opposites decrease. That means if you find one of the pairs of opposites is excessive in your body, you should apply the opposite quality to help decrease that quality and restore balance.3


A simple example would be if you are cold, then you put on a jacket to warm up. This will bring you into balance, no matter your constitution. However, if you are already hot, have pitta in your constitution or a pitta imbalance, and you put on a down jacket in the middle of summer in the blazing sun at the hottest part of the day and you overheat, then this will push your pitta out of balance (or further out of balance if it is already out of balance). Generally, Ayurveda looks at imbalances as the increase of a dosha or an excess of one or more of these qualities.


woman sweating


You can balance these pairs of opposite qualities with food, lifestyle practices, environment, relationships, and other ways because everything in the Universe has these qualities.


Let's take one example and run through possible options.

If there is too much mobility, then we can balance it in the following ways:

  • Food: Eating foods that are grounding like sweet potatoes and grains.

  • Lifestyle: Meditating is a great way to increase stability, the opposite of mobile.

  • Environment: Spending time in nature away from the busyness of a city, or daily life.

  • Relationships: Spending time with people who are grounded, rather than spending time with people who are anxious and aggitated.


The Elements and the 20 Gunas (Qualities)


If you've been exploring Ayurveda already, then you know that the elements are part of the bedrock of Ayurveda. The 20 gunas are used to explain the elements.

  • Ether--clear, light, subtle, soft

  • Air--mobile, dry, light, cold, rough, subtle

  • Fire--hot, sharp, light, dry, subtle

  • Water--cool, liquid, dull, soft, oily, slimy

  • Earth--heavy, dull, static, dense, hard, gross


fire on a beach

These elements then translate into the doshas because the doshas are made up of the five elements.

  • Vata--Ether and Air

  • Pitta--Fire and Water

  • Kapha--Water and Earth


How the 20 Gunas (Qualities) Affect the Doshas


The 20 qualities affect each of the three dohas differently. To go a little deeper and better understand how to use these qualities, the Ashtanga Hridayam discusses the gunas (qualities) that are inherent in each of the doshas (to read more about doshas please check here). This helps us to narrow down our focus to understand how the individual gunas (qualities) affect each of the doshas. For example, if vata is out of balance, then we can look further to see which of the gunas (or qualities) predominant in vata are out of balance, and then apply the opposite guna to bring vata back into balance.


Let's first look at which gunas (qualities) the Ashtanga Hridayam links to each dosha.


तत्र रूक्षो लघु: शीत: खर: सूक्ष्मश्चलोऽनिल: |

Rūkṣa (dryness), laghu (light in weight), śīta (coldness), khara (roughness), sūkṣma (subtleness) and cala (movement) are the properties of Anila (vāta).


पित्तं सस्नेहंतीक्षणोष्णं लघु विस्रं सरं द्रवम् ||११||

Sasneha (slight unctousness), tīkṣṇa (penetrating deep), uṣṇa (hot, heat producing) laghu (light in weight) visra (bad smell), sara (free flowing) and drava (liquidity) are the properties of Pitta. (11)


स्निग्ध: शीतो गुरुमन्द: श्लक्षणो मृत्‌स्न: स्थिर: कफ:

Snigdha (unctousness), śīta (cold, producing coldness), guru (heavy), manda (slow in action), slakṣṇa (smooth), mṛtsna (slimy) and sthira (stable/static) are the properties of kapha.2


Here are the qualities from the above shlokas again in English without the Sanskrit to make it easier to read:

  • Vata

    • dry

    • light

    • cold

    • rough

    • subtle

    • mobile

    • (and some also add "clear" here)

  • Pitta

    • slightly oily

    • penetrating/sharp

    • hot

    • light in weight

    • bad smell

    • free-flowing

    • liquid

  • Kapha

    • oily

    • cold

    • heavy

    • slow

    • smooth

    • slimy

    • stable/static

In the table below, we can see the effects of the qualities on each of the doshas. This ↓ indicates that the quality pacifies or reduces the dosha, bringing it back into balance. This ↑ indicates that the quality aggravates or increases the dosha, sending it out of balance.

Guna/ Quality

Vata

Pitta

Kapha

Heavy

Light

Slow/dull

Sharp/penetrating

Cold

Hot

Oily/unctuous

Dry

Slimy/smooth

Rough

Dense/solid

Liquid

Soft

Hard

Static/stable

Mobile

Subtle

Gross

Clear/non-slimy

Sticky/slimy

↑ *4


To use this chart, we can explore the following example. If we are feeling dry, the opposite quality is oily. Applying more oil either internally by eating healthy fats or externally applying oil to the skin (as in Abhyanga--Self-Massage with warm oil) will help to reduce dryness.


I often use this particular understanding of the dry-oily pair of opposites with clients who have difficulty hydrating even though they are drinking a lot of water. Sometimes adding extra, beneficial oils to the diet will help to reduce that dryness. Although, just so you know, dryness can also come from ama, toxins, which is a topic for an upcoming blog. You can tell if it's ama if you have a heavy coating on the tongue. In this case, ama (toxins) should be cleared before adding extra oil.


woman applying oil to her foot

​You'll notice some gunas in the pitta dosha shloka don't appear in the chart above. Bad smell (or fleshy smell) and free-flowing (or spreading) are not included in the 10 pairs of opposites and are only seen with pitta dosha. I have always thought of the opposites of these to be sweet-smelling and static/stable.


For example, onions and garlic will often give a person with a pitta constitution (or pitta imbalance) that fleshy smell. Avoiding these and eating sweet fruits is one way to reduce the fleshy smell. Using sweet smelling essential oils is another way to reduc pitta and that fleshy smell.


While pitta is not mobile (pitta and kapha are said to be lame and unable to move), it can spread. Think of a skin rash, which is often a pitta-related condition and can spread all over the body. Skin rashes can sometimes be reduced by spending more time in meditation and relaxation, which brings in that stable quality.

The Spectrum of the Gunas (Qualities)


All substances tend to be on a spectrum between the pairs of gunas (qualities). For example, a sweet potato is considered heavy, but would not be as heavy as meat, and would therefore fall somewhere in the middle between heavy and light.


Or ginger would be sharp/penetrating, but much milder than chili pepper, which would be very sharp/penetrating. So ginger would fall somewhere on the spectrum between sharp and dull, but much closer to sharp.


Can you think of some foods and where you might put them within a spectrum of dry to oily?



Only 20 Gunas (Qualities) in Ayurveda?


As you dive deeper into Ayurveda, you'll discover that there are actually more than these 20 gunas that we have been discussing. This is just a starting point to get you thinking and exploring these 20 gunas in your body and life.



20 Gunas (Qualities) of Ayurveda


These 20 gunas are the foundation of understanding the doshas and how to find balance in your life. Explore them in your own body, the foods that you eat, the lifestyle activities you perform, the environment you live in, and the relationships that you have.


Please let me know what you discover by sending me a comment. Please like this post and share it on social media.

  1. Vagbhatta, and K. R. Srikantha Murthy. Astanga Hrdayam. 5th ed., vol. 1, Krishnadas Academy, 2001, 11.

  2. Vagbhatta, and K. R. Srikantha Murthy. Astanga Hrdayam. 5th ed., vol. 1, Krishnadas Academy, 2001, 8-9.

  3. Singh R.H., Singh G., Sodhi J.S., Dixit U.. "Deerghanjiviteeya Adhyaya". Charak Samhita New Edition, edited by Dixit U., Deole Y.S., Basisht G., eds., 1st edition, CSRTSDC, 2020, pp. 3, Doi:10.47468/CSNE.2020.e01.s01.003 (Sutra 44&45)

  4. Vasant Lad, Textbook of Ayurveda: Fundamental Principles, Albuquerque, NM, The Ayurvedic Press, 2002, 32-35.



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