The Three Mahagunas of Ayurveda: Would You Like Emotional Equilibrium in the Midst of Change?

Have you ever struggled to regain your emotional equilibrium in the midst of an unexpected change? If so, you were working with your mahagunas or what Ayurveda would call in English your mental qualities. It’s easy to get mad or scared or want to hide these days. It can be harder to keep your temper, courage and momentum. Yet sometimes doing just that is going to help everybody.


While we come into life with a particular fairly immutable balance of the doshas known as our constitution or prakruti (like it or not), the mahagunas are ours to create – and change. What does this mean? Say you’ve got a Kapha constitution. You’ve heard that you’re destined to be loyal, lovable, solid – and stubborn. Yet you have more control over this than you might suspect. The mahagunas – sattva, rajas, and tamas – are how we relate to circumstances mentally. They are our hidden resource and treasure, as well as challenge. When we’re stubborn, in a tamasic frame of mind, we’re more likely to respond habitually without thought, with an old pattern of behavior. We’re more likely to contract in on ourselves and assume that nothing new can possibly happen. Is this Kapha? No, it’s tamas. Anybody can get tamasic.


What do rajas and sattva look like? If we’re in a rajasic state of mind, we could be fiery and passionate, get infuriated over injustice, speak out loudly for our truth. If we bring forward more sattvic qualities of mind, we’re more likely to respond with love, compassion, wisdom, open curiousity. We all have the capacity to express all three mahagunas.


There are three mahagunas because we need them all. There are times when we hold with our deepest spiritual ideals and express them simply by being loving and kind (sattva). There are moments when we hold with that love and intention strongly with energy (rajas) as millions of us did during the women’s marches. There are times when we need to not budge (tamas). All of these qualities came forward positively on a massive level with the marches.


My take on the mahagunas of Ayurveda is: we are not helpless victims of our constitution (or, as our daughter as a kid famously wailed one time, “You made me want to do it!”) Rather, we’re working with our personality, emotional makeup, physiology, and structure – all things that are part of our constitution – with awareness. How does this look for Kapha? Kapha is cool, slow, solid, grounded, sustaining. A sattvic Kapha could respond to a surprising change with loving kindness, wisdom and open interest. The same Kapha when in a rajasic frame of mind (because we’ve all got the potential for all three qualities of mind inside, right?) might get mad and refuse to talk about what’s happening. That same Kapha in the face of a shocking change, responding with tamas, might shut down, get depressed and engage in self-destructive behaviors. We’ve got choices. Some times the only choice we’re offered is how we respond to conditions. This is where the mahagunas are particularly powerful.


Like learning a new language, sport, or dance step, being able to move from one state of mind to another takes practice. Sattva in particular can be the hardest to maintain – and the most valuable to express.


Let’s look at the mahagunas manifesting in a different constitutional type, Vata. Vata dosha/constitution is light, cool, dry, flexible – and can get worried. A sattvic Vata person might take a deep breath, plant their feet firmly, and look at the surprising unexpected worrisome change with love and determination. No opinions or ideas yet, just love and determination. That same person in a rajasic state of mind, might jump to conclusions, label somebody else wrong and be anxious to create a plan of action, well-considered or not. This very same individual responding in a tamasic way, might raise specters and fears from the past: “I knew it would go badly, I was afraid it wouldn’t work and it didn’t. I’m scared it could be even worse than I imagine.” This Vata person, mustering their sattva quality inside, might respond to their own dark state of mind with, “Hold on. Stick with your loving. Don’t jump to conclusions yet. Let’s see what can happen here.”


Pitta constitution is warm, sharp, oily, light. As the reader, you’re in the position now to describe a sattvic, rajasic and tamasic Pitta, right? What would you say? Yes, you’ve got it – the sattvic Pitta works on holding their temper in the midst of radical changes, and resting in curiosity, love and openness as best they can. The same person in rajas mode holds forth with a host of opinions, and knows they’re right. This self same Pitta in a tamasic frame of mind will head for whatever their lowest default position is – rage, despair, frustration, destruction.


Is this fair? Didn’t I start by saying you could bring forward all three mahagunas in a single experience positively, like the women’s marches? I did. We can be loving and kind (sattva), act energetically (rajas) and hold our ground (tamas).


So why am I going for the more difficult end of things? Because it’s there. These other examples from daily life are offered so that you can recognize the three mahagunas in your own life (and mine). You can choose how you want to respond, regardless of your constitution. There is a certain freedom here. In the example one paragraph back about the tamasic Pitta, we can choose to invite the sattvic Pitta within them forward. We might do this by holding their hand, giving them a hug, dragging them out for a long walk in fresh air, giving them the opportunity to re-consider how they want to respond to this distressing radical change that just knocked them off balance. We can do this with ourselves, as well: drag ourselves out for the walk in fresh air et al.


The mahagunas/mental qualities, are how we relate to circumstances, both every day ones and unexpected ones. They can be our hidden resources and treasure – or our favorite drug of choice. Drug of choice? Yes, when we head for a familiar state of mind that does us no good, it is like some kinds of drug. We can lose control, be bowled over by fear, anger, desire, inertia – or not.


Can you simultaneously hold with your love (sattva) while angry (rajas)? Well, maybe not instantly. But what about with practice? Can you muster some patience (sattva) with yourself and others in the midst of desperate fear (rajas and tamas)? What about kindness (sattva)? Can you invite yours to co-habitate with desire (rajas and tamas)?


It takes a certain amount of rajas to be a blog writer. May I settle down and smile at you with friendly sattva. And take a deep lazy tamasic breath as I break for dinner.


Amadea Morningstar, MA, RPE, RYT is an expert in Ayurvedic health care. She meets you where you are, and is available with respect, bringing over 40 professional years of experience, academic training and hands-on knowledge that includes: Western nutrition, Ayurvedic nutrition and herbalism, Polarity Therapy, Marma therapy, Integral yoga, and nature-based approaches.

She is participating in the upcoming National Ayurvedic Medical Association conference, Ayurveda for a Healthy World, this April 20 – 22 in Plano, Texas. Join her there.


Spiral Blue Photograph © Renee Lynn