THIS IS PART 1 OF 5 POSTS ABOUT BUILDING A SUSTAINABLE YOGA PRACTICE
Consider the three states of all matter in the physical world, according to yoga, called the gunas: tamas, rajas, and sattva. Yoga teaches us that everything that we see, hear, taste, and think of is a mix of these qualities, and that they constantly ebb and flow in relationship to each other.
Tamas is the quality of slowness, stagnation, depression, and lethargy. It is a low energy state. We often come out of the holiday season with a lot of tamas because we have spent several days or weeks not working, eating more and richer foods than usual and being out of our normal routines. In some cases, this tamasic state is heightened because our expectations of the holidays aren’t met. The cookies didn’t make us happier; we fought or had difficult times with family; the build up of preparing and buying and cooking has depleted us energetically instead of filling us up, as we had hoped.
It’s the natural ground for New Year’s resolutions. We want to not feel this heaviness anymore. We want to move onto bigger and better things. We forget though: the state we are in is a temporary one. We will not always feel this post-holiday sluggishness. Yet we set big goals for the coming year, and often they are not good matches for our usual life and don’t ultimately meet our deepest needs, so it’s unlikely that the resolutions will prove to be sticky.
However, the urge to set goals and get into action in the New Year is an appropriate reaction to feeling sluggish. Rajas is action, activity, motion, energy. Too much may feel like anxiety or jitters. The big goals of the New Year illustrate what we know intuitively: that the way out of a tamasic state is to get into action. We need a little bit of rajas to temper the dullness.
Likewise, if we are experiencing anxiety or an over-stimulated nervous system, the quality of rajas is predominant, and slowing down and rest will be the antidote.
Sattva is the quality of light and goodness. A goal for our spiritual practice may be to balance our rajasic and tamasic qualities and head for a sattvic state. It’s important to understand though that all three of these qualities are always present, not just in us but in everything we consume and everything that we do.
It may be that our practice is actually not helping to balance and bring us to a more sattvic state. A common example is the modern yogi with a stressful job who takes on many obligations and is constantly on the go. This person may have a daily power yoga class they love and getting to that class everyday may make them feel better and be an important part of their life. At the same time, the pressure to always go and show up no matter what may end up exacerbating the anxiety of this lifestyle. Layer on top of that a million shoulds: should eat more veggies, should meditate every morning, should call my mother, and it becomes clear that this is literal restlessness and a recipe for unhealthy stress and, left unchecked, disease.
If this yogi can recognize this dynamic and make small adjustments, maybe replacing one of the power classes with a yin or restorative class every week and challenging the list of shoulds, then she may well find her life more satisfying and restful. Sleep will likely improve, as will overall fitness since every living thing, including us, needs rest.
On the other hand, I often see depressed people coming regularly, sometimes multiple times per week, to restorative or yin yoga. I would never discourage this because if we are experiencing depression, then getting to any yoga class is a step in the right direction. At the same time, if this person found some amount of time in which to move more, perhaps replacing one restorative class with a slow flow or finding an hour a week to walk in nature, then the depression may lift naturally.
It’s important to state explicitly that anxiety and depression are real health issues and that more intervention than tweaking a yoga practice may well be called for. Medical attention may be required. At the same time, there is ample scientific evidence that yoga helps anxiety and depression, and tweaking or beginning a yoga practice may the first step or one piece of a larger therapeutic process.
Most of us have milder symptoms of depression and anxiety that don’t require medical intervention, in which case, this process of finding a practice that meets our specific individual needs through nuanced adjustments to the positive things we are already doing can help us experience more joy and balance in our lives.
When you look back on the last year, in what ways have you fluctuated between the different qualities of rajas, tamas, and sattva?
What is your gut feeling about the predominate quality of your life today? Is it rajasic, tamasic, or sattvic?