The 20 gunas of Ayurveda define the innate properties of physical substances and their effect on our body and mind. This Ayurvedic principle was laid down by Charaka, one of the greatest Ayurvedic physicians.
20 gunas is a highly intutive classifications of matter in Ayurveda. It forms the foundation of Ayurvedic treatment with food, herbs, and lifestyle changes.
In fact, when we understand these gunas, it helps us to establish a better relationship with our food, environment, and ourselves. Let’s dive in!
20 Gunas in Ayurveda can be used to classify Food, Environment, and Lifestyle Habits
The 20 gunas in Ayurveda describe everything around us. For example, we can describe food items, herbs, different forms of exercises, yoga asana, seasons of the year, and even times of the day to carry a mix of varying gunas. Here are some examples:
- Cheese is considered to be heavy, gross, dense, and oily. When we consume cheese it gives its qualities to us. Hence, when we take too much cheese, it slows down our digestive system and may lead to heaviness and indigestion.
- Summer season is considered to carry light, hot, sharp, and liquid. During summer season, our body and mind gain the qualities of the season. And during excessive summer heat, we get too much heat inside.
- Walking in nature is considered to be mobile, light, smooth, and clear. It provides the same qualities to our body and mind.
The Gunas describe the state of our Mind, Body, and Body Systems
These 20 gunas are present in different ways in almost everything that we see and feel. They define our emotions, physical features, and functioning of our body systems. Let’s see how:
- Our mood, thoughts, emotions, and feelings can all be described in terms of the 20 gunas in Ayurveda. For example, happiness is considered to carry subtle, smooth, and warming gunas. Hence, it helps us to gain energy, warmth, and lightness.
- The texture of our skin, hair, nails, and even the inner organization of our body can be defined in terms of the 20 gunas. For example, dry skin is supposed to carry dry, brittle, hard, and rough gunas.
- The functioning of our body systems can also be described in terms of the 20 gunas of Ayurveda. For example, poor digestive system is considered to be slow, cold, heavy, and static.
Ayurveda also defines Triguna – the 3 gunas of the Mind. It specifically deals with the effect of our actions, food, and surroundings on our mind and personality.
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Characterizing Tri Dosha through The 20 Gunas of Ayurveda
Dosha and Gunas are so intertwined that more often than not, we will find specific Dosha to be defined by their attributes. This holds true during the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions.
Since Dosha is also defined as the specific energies, hence their effect on the body and mind is considered in terms of their specific attributes. Here is a summary of the classification of the three Dosha according to their Gunas in Ayurveda.
|Vata Dosha||Pitta Dosha||Kapha Dosha|
Relationship between the 3 Seasons and the 20 Gunas of Ayurveda
The Summer season has similar attributes to that of Pitta Dosha – hot, liquid, light, mobile, and penetrating. Hence, Pitta Dosha usually increases in our body during summer season.
Vata Dosha is defined in Ayurveda as light, subtle, dry, mobile, rough, and cold. Hence, in the Autumn season, which also exhibits these attributes, Vata Dosha increases in the human constitution.
Kapha is liquid, heavy, cold, sticky and cloudy. In the Winter when these characteristics predominate in the external environment, Kapha Dosha tends to increase in the human body and thoughts as well.
Below you will find detailed description of the 20 gunas with examples and how they affect our health.
The beauty of these principles is that they govern the result or EFFECT on our body of nearly everything possible such as food, physical activity, season, age, time, action, and thoughts.
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What are the 20 Gunas? Properties of Matter in Ayurveda
1. Guru (Heavy)
The heavy quality promotes growth in the body. And in excess it leads to heaviness and dullness. We need the heavy quality for nourishment, groundedness, centeredness, and stability.
Heavy increases Kapha Dosha. It decreases Vata Dosha and Pitta Dosha. Here are some examples:
- Meat, cheese, yogurt, and sugar are heavy. Eating heavy foods may cause weight gain.
- Sleep is also heavy. Sleeping for 10 hours makes a person feeling heavy throughout the day.
- Eating and not doing much physical activity is also heavy.
Too much of heavy slows digestion and metabolism, and creates dullness.
2. Laghu (Light)
The light quality increases Vata and Pitta and decreases Kapha. This quality makes the body alert and attentive.
But too much of this quality creates spaciness, ungroundedness, and instability. It creates insecurity, fear, and anxiety.
3. Manda (Slow or Dull)
The slow quality increases Kapha and decreases Vata and Pitta. Rich and fatty foods induce this quality.
Manda creates sluggishness, slow action, relaxation, and dullness, as well as calm, quiet, and silence.
4. Tikshna (Sharp)
The sharp quality increases Vata and Pitta and decreases Kapha. Sharp qualities are present in cayenne pepper and other spicy foods. The fire is hot and sharp.
This quality improves learning, concentration, understanding, appreciation, and comprehension. But excess Tikshna can cause ulcers.
5. Shita (Cold)
The cold quality increases Vata and Kapha and decreases Pitta. Shita creates cold, numbness, unconsciousness, contraction, stagnation, fear, and insensitivity in the body.
Cold promotes accumulation of mucus, thus raising Kapha. The cold quality cools down Pitta, slows digestion and reduces immunity.
Exposure to cold weather reduces the natural resistance of the throat and may help promote a sore throat, if your internal fire, or Agni, is not strong enough to give protection.
6. Ushna (Hot)
The hot quality increases Pitta and decreases Vata and Kapha. The hot quality stimulates gastric fire, improves circulation, digestion, absorption, and assimilation.
But an increase in Pitta can make a person irritable and angry. Also, Ushna liquefies Kapha, removes it from the system and promotes cleansing. This is as eating hot curry, green chilies or cayenne peppers, which are hot; your sinuses begin to run.
7. Snigdha (Oily or Unctuous)
The oily properties of matter increase Pitta and Kapha and decrease Vata. Snigdha brings relaxation. It creates smoothness, moisture, lubrication, and vigor. It promotes compassion. Love is oily, liquid and nourishing because it has the quality of Snigdha.
8. Ruksha (Dry)
The dry quality increases Vata and decreases Pitta and Kapha. It creates dehydration and makes the stool hard and dry, causing constipation. Ruksha stimulates fire because fire is dry. This quality causes choking, constriction, spasm, and pain.
Dry weather causes aggravation of Vata under the skin, causing the skin to become dry, rough and cracked. Fear, nervousness, and loneliness are dry. Ruksha creates isolation, separation, and rejection. When a person is lonely, the dry quality is aggravated.
9. Shlakshna (Slimy or Smooth)
The smooth properties of matter increase Pitta and Kapha and decrease Vata. Cheese and oils increase Pitta, while avocado and ghee increase Kapha.
This quality lubricates and makes the body flexible. So, Shlakshna prevents osteoporosis and arthritic changes.
10. Khara (Rough)
The rough quality increases Vata and decreases Pitta and Kapha. Khara increases dryness, absorption, and constipation.
All raw vegetables are rough and provoke Vata, hence causing bloating. The rough quality is also present in garbanzo beans, adzuki beans, black beans, and pinto beans. Even after being cooked, they are still rough, astringent, produce gas, and increase Vata.
11. Sandra (Dense)
Sandra also means more concentrated. The dense quality increases overall Kapha and decreases Vata and Pitta. Meat and cheese are dense.
Sandra increases the compactness of the body and makes a person more grounded. Sandra promotes solidity, density, and strength. The firmness and solidity of healthy muscle tissue are Kapha.
12. Drava (Liquid)
The Drava also means less concentrated or diluted. Drava quality increases Pitta and Kapha and decreases Vata. The Drava dissolves and liquefies.
The liquid quality promotes salivation, compassion, and cohesiveness. Excessive intake of water will cause water retention and increase Kapha. This is as Kapha has the qualities of dense, liquid and salty.
13. Mrudu (Soft)
The soft quality increases Pitta and Kapha and decreases Vata. Mrudu creates softness, delicacy, relaxation, tenderness, love, and care. It provokes mucus and increases Kapha in the system.
The soft quality calms Vata, because Vata is rough. Love is soft while anger is hot, sharp and penetrating; fear is dry and rough. Sleeping on a soft water bed increases Kapha.
14. Kathina (Hard)
The hard quality increases Vata and decreases Pitta. In later stages of the disease, it also increases Kapha such as when a tumor is formed. Kathina increases hardness, strength, rigidity, selfishness, callousness, and insensitivity in the mind.
In pneumonia, the lungs become hard. Sleeping on a hard bed increases Vata. Callouses on the hands or feet are Kathina.
15. Sthira (Static)
The static quality increases Kapha and decreases Vata and Pitta. Sthira promotes stability and support.
Also, static quality brings to groundedness. Sitting quietly induces the static quality and brings stability and healing.
16. Chala (Mobile)
The mobile quality increases Vata and Pitta and decreases Kapha. Chala promotes motion, shakiness, and restlessness. Our thoughts, feelings and emotions are mobile.
Insecurity and shakiness come from mobile quality. Jogging, jumping, and physical activity is an example of Chala.
17. Sukshma (Subtle)
The subtle quality increases Vata and Pitta and decreases Kapha. Many drugs and herbs are Sukshma.
For example, marijuana increases Vata and Pitta and makes a person spacey. Also, alcohol and aspirin are subtle and especially increase Pitta.
18. Sthula (Gross)
The gross quality increases Kapha and decreases Vata and Pitta. Sthula causes obstruction and obesity.
Meat and cheese are gross and increase Kapha.
19. Vishada (Clear)
The clear quality increases Vata and Pitta and decreases Kapha. Vishada pacifies but creates isolation and diversion. The opposite of Avila is Vishada.
An excess of clear quality can manifest from too much cleansing, such as excessive enemas or purgatives.
20. Picchila (Sticky) or Avila (Cloudy)
The sticky and cloudy properties of matter increase Kapha and decrease Vata and Pitta.
Picchila causes cohesiveness in body and mind. In excess, it can cause attachment which is a sign of high Kapha. Avila causes lack of both clarity and perception. All dairy products are Avila and increase Kapha.
20 Gunas of Ayurveda can be classified into 10 pairs of Opposite Attributes
Charaka described 20 Gunas in Charaka Samhita, which is one of the most important piece of texts in Ayurveda. He classified 20 Gunas into 10 opposite pairs. This means that each guna has an exact opposing attribute that can nullify it and hence it’s effect.
For example, heavy and light or hot and cold or clear and cloudy. Here’s a table for you to see this classification in a structured format.
|The Gunas||Opposite Guna|
|Guru (Heavy)||Laghu (Light)|
|Manda (Slow)||Tikshna (Sharp)|
|Sheeta (Cold)||Ushna (Hot)|
|Snigdha (Oily)||Ruksha (Dry)|
|Vishada (Clear)||Avila (Cloudy)|
|Sukshma (Subtle)||Sthula (Gross)|
|Sthira (Static)||Chala (Mobile)|
|Mrudu (Soft)||Kathina (Hard)|
|Sandra (Dense)||Drava (Liquid)|
|Shlakshna (Smooth)||Khara (Rough)|
Now that you have understood the basics about the gunas, it is time to learn how you can use this for Ayurvedic treatment. Let’s go!
Like increases Like and Opposites cancel out – Ayurvedic Treatment Fundamentals
One of the Ayurvedic principles states that Like increases Like. This means that when similar gunas come together, their quantitative expression increases.
Similarly, opposite decrease each other. Hence, when opposing gunas come together, they nearly cancel each other’s effect.
For example, when you have cold drinks or ice cream in summer season, it is usually soothing to the body. This is the example of opposites canceling out.
However, when we have the same thing in winter season, it leads to cough, cold, or aggravates sinus congestion. This is where the principles of like increases like plays out.
And of course, our body also desires warming and light foods such as soups and curries or warm clothing during winter season. This is an example of our body giving us signals to balance out the effect of opposite gunas.
The concepts governing Ayurvedic herbs, therapeutics, and food preparation are based on balancing the gunas and hence doshas in our body.
- The first step in Ayurvedic treatment is to identify the current health state in terms of 20 Gunas or Dosha Imbalance.
- And the next step is to use opposing gunas to balance out the aggravated Dosha.
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- Fundamental Principles of Ayurveda – Vol 1, Vasant Lad
- Ayurveda Encyclopedia 2nd Edn: Natural Secrets to Healing, Prevention, & Longevity