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What Is the Meaning of Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas?

The mind can be a tricky thing, can't it?

What state do you find your mind in lately?


scrabble tiles spelling out "mind"

Ayurveda talks about the mind in multiple ways, and one of these ways is by utilizing the concepts of sattva, rajas, and tamas. Sattva is a synonym for the mind, while rajas and tamas are doshas ("faults" or "that which goes out of balance") of the mind.


Sattva, rajas, and tamas are known as triguna, the three fundamental qualities of the mind.1

They explain how each individual's mind is different, in the same way that the doshas (vata, pitta, and kapha) explain why our bodies are different.


You can be described by the qualities (gunas) which are predominant in the mind. If you are predominant in sattva, then you have peace, harmony, clarity, and mental balance.


rocks stacked on top of each other with the ocean in the background

Generally, this is what those who are following a spiritual path are trying to aim for. Sometimes, if you're trying too hard to get to that place of sattva, you may create more rajas, or even tamas, in your mind without realizing it.


If your mind is predominantly rajas, then you may have more energy and perform actions that often satisfy cravings. If your mind is predominantly tamas, then you may have more unconscious actions and inertia.


But, all individuals have all of these qualities. Usually more than one of these qualities is acting at any particular time. We all cycle through having a predominance of each of these qualities (gunas) at different times in our lives.


For example, you may be predominantly sattvik and rajasik at the same time, which may guide you to do actions that lead toward peace and harmony. Or you could be predominantly rajasik and tamasik at the same time, which may guide you to do actions that lead you toward inertia and performing unconscious actions.


a woman sitting in the woods in meditation

A person's mind can be described as sattvik, rajasik, tamasik, or a combination of these gunas (qualities).


Sattva may be the state of the mind that you would all like to strive toward, but you need rajas and tamas as well. Rajas is activity and tamas is inertia. If you had no rajas, you would never accomplish anything. You need the rajas to start new activities and move forward. If you didn't have tamas, you wouldn't ever be able to finish a project or go to sleep at night. You need tamas to bring a stop to activities.


Just like the physical doshas of vata, pitta, and kapha, you have a mental constitution (manas prakriti, with manas meaning "mind") and a current state of balance in the mind (manas vikriti). You are born with a certain makeup of these qualities (sattva, rajas, and tamas) that comes from factors existing before birth. But unlike the body's makeup of vata, pitta, and kapha, you can bring more sattva into your life, no matter what your mental constitution was at birth.


The mind is powerful, if you can see and acknowledge the current state of the mind, then you can change it just with thought.2 For example, if you are stuck in tamas, you can tell yourself that you are not tamasik and you can shift the mind toward sattva, just by thinking it. As I said, the mind is quite powerful!


You can try an online quiz if you are interested in learning what your gunas say about you.




The Meaning of Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas


Remember that sattva, rajas, and tamas are Sanskrit terms that Ayurveda uses to help describe the Universe and the individual. There aren't any exact English translations for these concepts, but we can use many English words to help describe them. The main point is that you understand the concept so that you can use it for growth within your own life.


I've made a list of some words that help describe sattva, rajas, and tamas so that you can have a better understanding of their meaning.


Sattva

Rajas

​Tamas

pure essence of light

movement

inertia

right action

change

darkness

spiritual purpose

excitability

confusion

universal level—vast, clear space

universal level—atmosphere

universal level—solid substance

individual level—perception, the knower

individual level—movement of perception, attention

individual level—experience, the known

potential energy

kinetic energy

inertia

observer

observation

object observed

creates

maintains

destroys


But, What Does All of This Mean To YOU?

If you find your mind to be overly active (rajasik) or stagnant (tamasik), there are practices that can help bring you closer to sattva. Having the mind be either overly active or stagnant is not fun. And perhaps more importantly, having an excess of rajas or tamas for an extended period of time may eventually lead to physical disease. That doesn't mean that you will never have rajas and tamas in the mind, it just means that you ideally would have more sattva with less rajas and tamas so that you can experience a healthy life.


According to an ancient Ayurvedic text (the Sushruta Samhita) the doshas, the digestive fire, the tissues, the waste products, the soul, the senses, and the mind must all be balanced to achieve good health. (Sushruta Samhita, Sutrasthana 15/38).


a woman in a striped dress with a red heart-shaped balloon


Activities to Help Increase Sattva


You can increase the sattva in your life by engaging in some simple practices.


To help you increase sattva, you can:


Meditate. Meditation is a powerful way to increase sattva because sitting with the mind allows you to see all of the movement (rajas) and stagnation (tamas) in the mind. Slowly you will begin to shift from the excess rajas and tamas toward sattva.


Eat whole, fresh foods prepared with love. Avoid eating processed, stale, or junk foods. When foods are freshly prepared they contain more prana (life force energy). You can experiment with this yourself. Try eating leftovers after 3-5 days and you will begin to notice how the food no longer has the same taste and doesn't satisfy you in the same way. Eating foods that contain more prana (life force energy) will help you to increase sattva and reduce rajas and tamas.


Practice yoga. The goal of yoga is not a firm body, although that may happen along the way. Yoga is meant to work with the mind. The asanas (postures) are meant to lead you to a place where you are able to sit in meditation. When the mind is completely focused on the practice, yoga asana can also be used as meditation in motion.


Listening to uplifting speakers or teachers. So much of the media around us is violent and depressing. When your senses are exposed to this kind of media, you need to process all of that violence and depression. If you listen to speakers and teachers who are offering uplifting ideas, you will increase your sattva.


Spend time in nature. Nature is filled with sattva. Just walk out into the woods for a few minutes and notice the difference in your mind. Nature is soothing to the nervous system and will help increase sattva.



a woman sitting by a body of water looking at mountains


If you have excess rajas:


Spend time in silence. Silence helps to slow the mind down so that you can begin to move from rajas (active mind) to sattva (a peaceful state of mind).


Meditation. Meditation is a great practice to help slow down the thoughts in the mind. If the mind is too busy to sit in meditation, try a walking meditation with slow rhythmic steps to help settle the mind. Try this link from Greater Good In Action to learn how to do a walking meditation. There are, of course, multiple ways to do walking meditation. I like to count my steps. Each step gets a number starting with 1, then 1, 2, then 1, 2, 3, then 1, 2, 3, 4, all the way up to ten. Once I hit ten, I start counting backwards in the same way with each step getting a number: 10, 10, 9, 10, 9, 8, 10, 9, 8, 7 all the way to one. If I end up in my head thinking about something else (which happens more than I would like to admit), then I begin over at "one" without judgment or criticism of myself for allowing my mind to wander. Try this walking meditation to help shift from a rajasik mind to a sattvik mind.


a close up of a meditating woman's arm with mala beads on her writs

Abhyanga--oiling of the body. This practice helps to calm the nervous system and settle the mind, helping to bring you closer to a predominance of sattva in your mind. You can read more about this practice of self-love in this blog post.


Eating whole foods prepared with love. Avoid processed foods, fast foods, junk foods, and stale foods. The fresher your foods, the easier it is to achieve a sattvik state of mind because the food is full of prana, or life force energy.


bunches of carrots, leeks, and other fresh veggies

Avoid or reduce eating meat. Meat is both rajasik and tamasik in nature. This isn't to say that meat is considered to be "bad" in Ayurveda. Ayurveda says that every substance in the Universe is both poison and medicine. Whether it is a poison or a medicine for you depends on your constitution, time of life, time of year, time of day, etc. If you are experiencing excess rajas or tamas, try eating a vegetarian diet (or mostly vegetarian diet) for a month or two and see what happens to the mind.


Avoid spicy, salty, and sour foods Avoiding these foods will help to reduce the rajasik state of mind and foster a sattvik state of mind. Spicy, salty, and sour foods increase movement in the mind, creating excess rajas. Try eating foods that are sweet (but not white sugar sweet, Ayurveda considers all building foods to be sweet), bitter, and astringent to help reduce rajas.


a woman sleeping in a bed

Have a regular bedtime. Having a regular bedtime (by 10 pm) will help settle rajas. When your sleep schedule is all over the place, the mind gets disturbed. The same is true if you are awake after 10 pm. Get to bed by 10 pm and begin to calm the mind before sleep. Yoga nidra is a great way to calm the mind before falling asleep, or it can be used if you wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep. Here are some of my favorite yoga nidra recordings.

Yoga Nidra: Ether by Mona Warner

Insight Timer is a free app that offers yoga nidra



If you have excess tamas, you may need a little rajas to wake you up to get you to sattva. Some activities that you can try to reduce tamas are:


Do an active yoga practice. Try yoga practices like Vinyasa or Ashtanga yoga. The rapid movement of these classes helps to reduce tamas and clear the mind at the same time.


a woman in a yoga pose

Do a vigorous breathing practice. Kappalabhati (the skull-shining breath) is a great way to clear tamas from the mind. Here's a link from Banyan Botanicals with a nice description of how to do this practice. It doesn't take much of this breathing practice to help clear the mind.


Eat fresh, whole foods. Once again, avoid foods that are processed, stale, fast foods, or junk foods, and favor whole, fresh foods prepared with love.


Avoid heavy, rich, thick foods. Cheese, ice cream, and meats are very heavy, rich and thick. These make the mind slow and dull. Eat lighter foods like vegetables and whole grains.


Go for a fast-paced walk, or dance. Vigorous movement helps clear tamas from the mind. Some fast-paced movement can really help to clear the tamas so that you can then work towards more sattva in the mind.


a woman with a backpack jumping in the woods


What is the Meaning of Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas?


Now that you have a bit of an understanding of the meaning of sattva, rajas, and tamas, the qualities (gunas) of the mind, you can begin to consciously work your way to having a predominance of sattva in your mind using the tools and techniques mentioned above.


If you like what you've read here, please like the post and share it with your friends on social media.


And let me know in the comments section what state you find your mind in these days and any ways that you have found to help clear excess rajas and tamas.






  1. Vridha Vagbhata, Ashtanga Sangraha. Edited by Shivaprasad Sharma. 3rd ed. Varanasi: Chaukhamba sanskrit series office;2012.

  2. Vasant Lad, Textbook of Ayurveda: Fundamental Principles, Albuquerque, NM, The Ayurvedic Press, 2002, 38.


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