Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas
Every “Ayurvedist” is compelled to understand nature. This timeless yearning inspires Ayurveda lovers to search for practical ways to harmonize the body with the dynamics of its environment.
To better understand this approach to living in harmony requires observation of three universal qualities called sattva, rajas, and tamas. These qualities comprise everything in our physical nature and all energetic expressions within the universe. The following is an outline of each quality which will support your process in cultivating health.
Sattva literally means “true essence.” It represents qualities like strength of character, wisdom, and brilliance. Honing these virtues allows awareness to be directed toward the light of complete understanding. These values represent the majestic energy of sattva.
When we want to be healed on every level of our being, the desire is realized through sattvic awareness. It is an understanding of truth and humility that we are ready to improve the whole self.
Aligning with non-violent behavior as well as maintaining cleanliness and honesty allows sattva to flow. This is powerfully realized through relationships rooted in unconditional love and respect.
Within Ayurvedic diets, sattvic foods include most organic fruits and vegetables (leafy greens, carrots, and broccoli, for example), grains like basmati rice, and a few animal products like ghee and honey.
For our modern society, it’s important to state that sattvic foods are REAL FOOD—not wrapped in plastic, packaged in cardboard, or canned with preservatives. These sattvic foods are full of prana (the life force), easy to digest, and promote overall wellness and mental clarity.
Rajas translates as “passion” and it sparks thoughts along the lines of “I am doing.” From this fiery quality, the performance of fuel-driven action makes rajas the energy of movement and intensity.
We are beings that evolved over millennia and countless generations through our search for a better life. This transformation is a result of rajasic activity, which is the fight to become stronger and better. It is through rajas that our lives can change. Look for rajas in the heat of competition, like nature’s survival of the fittest, and in passionate relationships.
Rajasic foods tend to be stimulating and acidic. Composed mainly of spicy, salty, and hot substances, rajasic foods generally build heat within the body and mind. They excite the senses and perpetuate passions.
Positively, we find foods and herbs that kindle agni (the digestive fire) to be rajasic. Examples are dry ginger, black pepper, and cayenne. Alas, more stimulating but somewhat destabilizing rajasic substances are coffee and red wine. Perhaps it is from rajas that the utility of moderation became clear.
Tamas means “darkness,” and it represents inertia.
These powers keep the physical structure of our homes together, solidifies memories, and promotes deep sleep at night. Negatively, tamas can repress emotions, creating feelings of depression and anxiety, and it makes our lives feel stuck.
Tamasic foods tend to be heavy, oily, and dense, like meat, cheese, potatoes, and pasta. Tamasic foods are the quintessential “bar foods,” which are best represented in French fries, nachos with cheese dip, and a tall glass of beer.
So while these tamasic foods may be pleasing and comforting in their own way, they also may not always be the best choices for us. In a way, tamas teases and teaches us that life is not fair.
In some cases, the heavy, grounding properties of tamas can be beneficial, and herbs that have a tamasic energy, such as garlic, asafetida, and valerian, can bring balance.
Balancing Diet and Lifestyle
In order to alchemize health through diet and lifestyle, I find it particularly important to recognize the best version of each quality and strike a balance with them.
One way to do this is to eat a diet that is composed of diverse tastes and qualities. A method for achieving this is to align with a diet that has proper ratios among the macronutrients: carbohydrates (sattva), protein (rajas), and healthy fats (tamas). The ratios of these macronutrients are totally unique to the constitution of the individual and requires experimentation with various foods and proportions until balance is achieved.
This is why the traditional Ayurvedic dish kitchari is so helpful: generally, it is digested easily and can be cooked according to personal needs, in which each person can choose the vegetables, fats, and spices to include. I encourage experimenting with cooking kitchari until you find the right level of macronutrients and spice.
With lifestyle balance, it is helpful to recognize what we find as true and meaningful in life—the sattva of life. This is also totally unique to the individual, as each of us must find what resonates on a personal level. This is accomplished through recognizing what we are responsible for and what activities spark happiness.
Sattva will strengthen when we invest purpose and love into our life’s path, our dharma. Rajas is how we enact those sattvic values and tackle the inevitable challenges of life. Tamas is how well we rest and relax, which allows the body to recuperate.
Ayurvedists constantly strive to harmonize these qualities by refining daily routines to achieve optimal equilibrium. While you refine your daily routines, keep these universal energies in mind as a force that constructs balance within performance.
I hope this distillation of these universal qualities will help in making powerful, beneficial choices in your life. Always remember that Ayurveda is the art of life. It is a skill that must be refined throughout your time alive and will improve over years of practice. Well wishes and all the best in your Ayurvedic experimentations. May it grant peace and well-being.