One of my teachers says that if there is a lifestyle for yoga, it is Ayurveda. Yoga and Ayurveda are sister sciences and leading an Ayurvedic lifestyle will support your yoga practice in tremendous ways. One of the reasons why Ayurveda is so supportive of yoga is that it leads us to a more sattvic way of life. But what is the meaning of sattva? Why is it important to lead a life of clarity and purity if you wish to practice yoga? This post will explore sattva meaning and how to recognize sattvic qualities.
The Three Gunas: Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas
If you practice yoga and Ayurveda, you may have come across the word sattva from time to time. However, in order to understand sattva one must have a context of the three gunas. The three gunas, according to scholar and author Edwin Bryant, are “strands or qualities inherent in prakriti (nature)…These gunas are like the threads which make up a rope, and all manifest reality consists of a combination of the gunas” (1) The three gunas—sattva, rajas, and tamas—can be described in terms of their qualities. These qualities dance and interplay; they are a balance of light and dark, heavy and light, inert and active. They compose all of nature.
The Cosmic Interplay
As yoga and Ayurvedic practitioners, we ultimately want to move toward a more clear, lucid, or sattvic way of being. However, the other two gunas—rajas and tamas, are necessary too. All three gunas are part of the cosmic interplay.
So what is rajas? Rajas is activity. Some activity is required to overcome dullness and inertia. Just as we all need some level of Pitta dosha in our constitution to digest foods and ideas, to motivate circulation, warmth, and transformation, we all need some level of rajas to instill creativity and activity. However, when rajas is very strong in an individual one may observe qualities such as passion, attachment, desire, and restlessness (1). Yoga master BKS Iyengar also describes those with a predominant rajas guna as being ambitious, fickle, and easily distracted (2).
Tamas may be defined as darkness or inertia. Though we certainly don’t want to live in a state of heaviness, dullness, or darkness, we need some level of tamas to be able to fall asleep at night. Just as we require light, darkness is also essential. On the other hand, if tamas is very strong in an individual, one may observe ignorance, delusion, lethargy, disinterest, and even wrath and cruelty (1) (2).
Sattva, meaning literally “being-ness” is the guna that we want to uphold as yoga and Ayurveda practitioners. It is exemplified as clarity, purity, lucidity, tranquility, wisdom, and happiness (1). When a person is predominantly sattvic, there is a sense of peace, ease, and clarity that is palpable. You may notice this clarity in their eyes and speech. They are pleasant to be around.
Balance Of The Gunas
Though we wish to favor sattvic foods, a sattvic way of living, and a sattvic attitude, it is important to remember that rajas and tamas serve their purpose as well. Oftentimes, to move from a tamasic state to a sattvic state requires some rajas. We may need some passion, drive, and activity to ultimately become more sattvic. Likewise, without tamas, we would never go to sleep and would be floating in the ether. Therefore, one can cultivate sattva but have respect for the role of rajas and tamas as well.
(1) Bryant, E. (2009). The yoga sutras of Patanjali. North Point Press.
(2) Iyengar, B.K.S. (1966). Light on yoga. Schocken Books.
Greta Kent-Stoll is a Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner (NAMA), as well as a writer, editor, and Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher. Her Ayurveda practice is based in Asheville, North Carolina and she is the co-owner of Iyengar Yoga Asheville.