Understanding the Gunas in Our Life and Why They Matter
Have you ever noticed how much abundant diversity exists in the world? Simply pause and look around—nature manifests in an infinite array of unique colors, textures, and forms. No two trees, animals, clouds, or birds are alike. There are significant variations from species to species, and even within the same species each individual life form is distinct.
Some plants are soft in texture, while others present themselves as rough, dry, sharp, oily, or dense. Some animals are large, heavy, and slow, while others are tiny, light, and quick.
This is the same for human’s physical and emotional differences—each one of us has specific qualities and variations that make us the unique individuals we are. In Ayurveda, these qualities are referred to as gunas.
All of life, including humans, are made up of the elements of ether, air, fire, water, and earth. A natural combination of these elements manifests into matter and becomes the unique blueprint of our individual expression of life.
The gunas are the specific qualities of all things that are made of matter—including us. They are the culmination of the mingling of the elements and contribute to our unique doshas, traits, and ways of being.
How the Gunas Can Help Us Understand the Doshas
Humans, like trees and plants, have common denominators allowing us to fit into a community. This is how the doshas of vata, pitta, and kapha serve to assess which community we best fit into, as a group of like-minded people. This is what makes up our shared genetics—why we look like our families and inherit strengths and weaknesses from our bloodlines.
If you recognize that you fit into the community of pitta-dominated individuals, that doesn’t mean you are just like all the pittas in the group. We each have our own qualities within a pitta community that explain our individuality.
For example, one might be pitta oily verses pitta sharp or hot. This individual would likely experience things like oily hair and skin and may be prone to issues with fatty buildup in the liver or excessive ear wax. On the other hand, a pitta person with a hot guna may tend to have hot, red skin or get angry easily. And a pitta with a sharp guna may have a sharp mind, a sharp tongue, and be prone to excessive critical thoughts.
If we look to vata dosha, someone with a cold guna might tend to have cold hands and feet and even come off with a cold personality, whereas a vata person with a dry guna would be more prone to things like dry skin, dry, cracking joints, and even a dry sense of humor!
In the community of kapha dosha, a person with the slow quality as their primary guna may have a slow metabolism or be a slow decision maker. And a kapha person with a heavy guna could tend to gain weight easily or be prone to a heaviness of spirit or a heavy heart.
Here is the Ayurvedic list of doshas and the qualities that represent specific details within it.
|The Doshas and Their Gunas|
The gunas are an incredible tool for the assessment of all things energetic, as well as emotional patterns, mental habits, and physical symptoms. They are also related to the qualities of our foods, plants, herbs, minerals, vitamins, and biochemistry.
The gunas allow us to track our emotional and physical symptoms and the specific ways they affect us by witnessing whether they are sharp, soft, dry, wet, mobile, oily, dense, light, and so on. They are ways of seeing what has come into fruition in our beings so that we can understand ourselves and our needs more completely.
Working with Opposites to Achieve Balance
At the heart of Ayurveda is the principle that like increases like and opposites balance. When any one of the doshas is aggravated, we can generally return to balance by reducing the influence of that dosha’s qualities, while favoring opposite qualities.
If one can figure out which doshas are imbalanced and then figure out which guna most represents their symptoms, then specific details can be found on what foods, herbs, and remedies will best serve each person.
As you can see in the chart above, there are several different gunas that correlate to each dosha. While we won’t go into the specifics of balancing each and every one, here are a few examples from each dosha category to get your mind thinking in terms of balancing opposite qualities.
Balancing Vata Gunas
Cold: A vata person who is living in a cold climate in the middle of winter is likely to be experiencing an aggravation of the cold quality of vata. This specific information leads to a clear and simple remedy—heat! Warming foods, hot teas, pungent spices, soothing baths, and cozy warm clothes are all heating things that would bring balance for this individual.
Dry: A vata person with a dry constitution living in the desert will likely be dealing with dry vata conditions such as dry skin, hair, and nails. The opposite remedy? All things moist and hydrating, such as soups, broths, healthy oils, warm baths, and abhyanga, or self-massage with herbal oil.
Balancing Pitta Gunas
Hot: A pitta person with the hot quality as their primary guna will experience heat-related conditions, especially in the summertime. This can manifest as red, irritated skin, sweating, and hot emotions such as anger or impatience. This person would benefit from cooling remedies, such as cucumbers, aloe vera, and bitter herbs and spices.
Oily: A pitta person with the oily quality as their primary guna will experience things like oily skin and hair and will want to avoid aggravating substances, such as too much fat, fried foods, chocolate, and dairy. Their best remedies? Things with a drying and cleansing quality such as lemons, citrus fruits, raw vegetables, and ginger.
Balancing Kapha Gunas
Cool: A kapha person with an excess of the cool quality may experience things like clammy skin, poor circulation, and a tendency to be emotionally disconnected or isolated. To balance the cool quality, they would want to incorporate warming remedies. For example, warm soups, spices like garlic and ginger, abhyanga with warming Kapha Massage Oil, and warm tulsi tea.
Heavy: A kapha person may experience an excess of the heavy quality, especially if they are going through a difficult time in life. These types tend to take on the emotional burdens of others, gain weight easily, and feel a sense of grief or heaviness of spirit. To bring lightness to their body and mind, they would benefit from things like dry brushing, invigorating exercise, and light cleansing foods such as salads, sprouts, citrus fruits, and plenty of fresh aromatic herbs.
The Bottom Line
Life is a balancing act, and the use of opposites is always a sure way to balance out what is not working. Soft foods need more roughage, dry foods need hydration, hot or acidic foods need alkaline cooling agents, and oily foods need bitters to cut through the grease.
With a basic understanding of the gunas, we can begin to see what’s out of balance, what needs attention, and what specific opposite qualities will be most effective in leading us back to optimal health.