by Mary Hilliker, RDN, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT
Do you ever feel that you have a carnival in your mind, heart, or body?
A stuck emotion here, an attitude lingering, a ruminating thought there, an ache or pain in a joint, tight back or neck muscles – all these possibilities creating either a ‘stuckness’ or a constant motion instead of lightness and clarity.
The ancient wisdom of yoga says that the natural state of our mind is lightness and luminosity (a state of sattva). This lightness and luminosity can extend to our thoughts, feelings, memories, emotions, physiology, and physical bodies. Through yoga practice that is skillful and intentional, we can foster more self-regulation. We can create the conditions to be discerning, less reactive, and positive even in the face of life’s ever-changing reality.
Our yoga practice can teach us about the nature of things that are constantly changing and that which is always the same. It’s in the quiet space of our practice that we develop the inner muscle of awareness to see what is. Through a skillful approach to practice, we can feel the universe within us and us within the universe.
So, what’s constantly changing? Pretty much everything! In yoga philosophy, we know this concept as Prakṛti. In their book, Embodying the Yoga Sutra: Support, Direction, Space, Ranju Roy and David Charlton, refer to Prakṛti as “outside.”
Anything with form or substance is changing and is Prakṛti. That rock, this river, my thoughts, our loved ones, the earth, the universe – it’s all in a state of constantly changing materiality. The qualities of all materiality are the guna-s. The qualities of the guna-s are described as:
Sattva Guna – Lightness, Clarity, Harmony, Buoyant, Joy, Understanding
Raja Guna – Movement, Activation, Mobilization, Turbulence
Tama Guna – Inertia, Stability, Stickiness.
In life and on the mat, the play of the guna-s will find us. If we have too much raja guna, we may experience more pain, anger, greed, agitation, and anxiety. More balanced raja guna will support motivation and creativity for changes that are necessary.
When tama guna is dominant, we may feel stuck, deluded, indifferent, heavy, ignorant, limited or restrained. When tama guna is balanced, it may provide a sense of stillness, stability, groundedness and structure.
When we balance tamas and rajas, we come closer to the state of sattva where inner wisdom, discerning awareness, clarity, and a sense of connectedness persist. Our yoga practice can cultivate a sattvic state where we are able to perceive unchanging source, referred to as Puruṣa. Think of this as “inside.”
You may have had the experience of taking yourself from a rajasic state (anxious, in constant motion, distracted) or a tamasic state (dull, listless, foggy, sluggish) and landed in a place in your yoga practice where you feel light, luminous, and more knowing of inner truths. This is the sattvic state and a goal of yoga practice.
The sattvic state is where we “park” everything – aches and pains, symptoms our bodies experience, the reality of constant change, the drama of our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, moods, reactions, and behaviors. When we “park” everything, we’re not suppressing it. We’re just resting it in the support of our practice so that we experience the light and luminosity of unchanging source. By parking everything, we can often be more discerning in how we transform through difficulties. Call this whatever you want for yourself, knowing that resting in the awareness of unchanging source is helpful, healing, and whole. It is there that we can allow all of life’s experiences to be a source of growth and transformation.
If we can take the time to see the guna-s at play in our lives and then collaborate with them in our practice, we can avoid being trapped or enmeshed by them. Like often attracts like. If we’re in constant motion, we may be attracted to constant motion and distraction in our yoga practice and in Life. If we’re dull and listless, we may not even make it to the mat, avoiding the work that may be helpful. Ultimately, a goal of yoga practice is to bring about a sense of lightness, luminosity and clarity.
Observing what’s happening without judgement and taking a small step in the opposite direction is a start toward creating a more proportionally helpful soup of the guna-s. We can use the play of the guna-s in our practice and be grateful for what each guna provides in our practice and in our life.
Prepares the structure for our practice
Put supports in place like a chair, the earth, a view of a tree, a candle
Cultivates stability, trust, and groundedness
Provides a starting point
Puts forth a goal or intention for the practice
Helps us take intelligent steps toward the goal of our practice
Cultivates creativity and change
Cultivates illumination and light, spaciousness, and openness
Provides insight into suffering and the causes of suffering and how it manifests in our life and in our relationships
Provide the means to change habitual tendencies that create suffering
Helps us track progress
“Sattva is the natural quality of the mind, rajas of the life-force and tamas of the physical body.”
-David Frawley in From the River of Heaven
My teacher, Gary Kraftsow, has advice about cultivating a sattvic mind. He offers recommendations like:
- Study and understand teachings
- Cultivate discernment and non-attachment
- Avoid being excessive in acquisitions and actions
- Avoid laziness and too much sleep
- Practice self-care
- Watch what you feed your mind
- Be in good company
- Practice serenity in the face of praise or blame
- Be humble
- Be truthful and respectful
- Help others
- Awaken your faith
- Endure during times of stress
The guna-s are always in constant movement, co-mingling in different proportions. We get our own individual experience of how the guna-s impact our physical bodies, physiology and minds through personality, cognition, emotions, and identity. We can use our yoga practice to observe the guna-s (aka the carnival!) and gently coax them into the proportions that help us connect to lightness, luminosity, and clarity.