Ayurveda and Food: It's a Balancing Act


Ayurveda, the science of life, is the 5,000-year-old healing system from India that aims to maintain balance in the mind, body, and consciousness. In Ayurveda it is believed that an imbalanced state of mind is the root cause of nearly all disease processes, and one of the main themes of Ayurvedic thought is the concept of the three gunas, or three primal qualities of matter and consciousness. In Sanskrit, guna translates as “attribute,” or “that which binds” us to the external world.


Sattva is the quality of truth, clarity, intelligence, equilibrium, stability, virtue, and goodness. It is light, luminous, peaceful, and blissful in nature. Sattva brings a feeling of happiness, contentment, love, and devotion. It is the force of love that unites all things. Sattva creates clarity in the mind, through which we perceive the truth of all things. Sattva is responsible for bringing about the awakening of the soul.


Rajas is the attribute of activity, experience, change, passion, aggressiveness, and disequilibrium. The short-term action of rajas is to stimulate and provide pleasure. In the long run, excess rajasic qualities will result in pain, suffering, fragmentation, and disintegration due to its unbalanced nature. Rajas is the active principle that creates conflict, irritability, restlessness, extroversion, and emotional upset. Rajas resides in the mind as that which seeks various objects through the doors of perception. As long as sensory pleasure remains a priority in our lives, we will fall victim to the instability of rajas.


Tamas is the quality of inertia, dullness, darkness, and ignorance and is obstructing and heavy in its action. It is the force responsible for sleep, gravity, and the decay of matter. Tamas veils one’s true nature by promoting ignorance, limitations, isolation, insensitivity, delusion, and materialism. It is tamas that causes one to become fixated on his or her limited concept of reality. The unwillingness to change or to see another point of view is born out of this concept. Excess tamas can lead to moral and physical degeneration.

How the Gunas Relate to Dosha

The term dosha literally translates as “fault,” “mistake,” or “altered state,” but it is commonly known as one’s basic constitution. Sattva has an affinity to pitta dosha, the biological humor of fire, responsible for metabolism and transformation. Rajas relates to vata dosha, the biological humor of air, which performs the functions of movement and communication. Tamas has qualities similar to those of kapha dosha, the biological humor of water, which provides structure, resistance, and lubrication. According to Ayurveda, rajas and tamas are the doshas of imbalanced states of the mind; sattva is the true nature of the mind. We all have sattvic, rajasic, and tamasic tendencies, and we need all of them to some degree—but we should put most of our attention on developing our sattvic side. Excess rajas and tamas can lead to disease if they remain the dominating forces.

If the mind is weak and stuck in a state of disorder and delusion, then we need to bring balance to rajas and tamas with the power of sattva. This can be done through meditation, yoga, kirtan (devotional singing), reading spiritual texts, creating a supportive environment by surrounding oneself with people on a similar spiritual path, and observing an Ayurvedic lifestyle.

The Ayurvedic Kitchen

In other words, to unfold sattvic qualities in one’s mind, body, and consciousness, it is best to follow a sattvic diet: foods that are purely vegetarian, organic, seasonal, local, homegrown, fresh, and tasty. Food that tastes really good and makes you happy is naturally sattvic. This food group includes all fruits and vegetables, edible greens, rice, and most grains, seeds and nuts, legumes, coconut, raw milk, ghee, honey (uncooked), saffron, most herbs, mild spices, ginger (considered to be the most sattvic spice), and those foods that are sweet in taste, light and cooling in action, and easy to digest. According to the Bhagavad Gita, the foods that most increase mental equilibrium (when eaten in appropriate quantities and properly digested) are rice, mung beans, milk, ghee, honey, and pure water.

Rajasic foods are those that stimulate the senses and nervous system. Common examples are tobacco, coffee, black tea, sugar, fried foods, eggs, fish, pickled foods, chilies, onions, and garlic. Though onions and garlic have healing properties and are indicated for some, they are indeed both rajasic and tamasic and are often forbidden to yogis and spiritual aspirants because they root the consciousness firmly in the body.

Tamasic foods are those which have no prana, or life-force, left in them. They could be stale, decayed, spoiled, processed, canned, frozen, artificially colored or flavored, fermented, overripe, unripe, burnt, undercooked, or overcooked. They are all heavy to digest. Examples of tamasic foods are mushrooms, alcohol, drugs, fast-foods, leftovers, and meat (especially red meat). In Ayurveda, meat is recommended only for those who are extremely debilitated or who frequently overexert themselves. It is very heavy to digest, putrefies faster than other foods, produces ama (toxic substances) quickly, and tends to overheat and dull the mind.

Ready to put your knowledge into practice? Give this dosha-balancing recipe a try to increase the quality of sattva and reduce the qualities of rajas and tamas.

About the Teacher

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Sarah Kruse
Sarah Kruse is an Ayurvedic Doctor who assists clients in returning to their true nature through the... Read more