- Clear away brain fog
- Ignite your digestive fire
- Rev up your energy
“Know, Oh Arjuna, that the mode of darkness is born of ignorance, confusing all embodied beings. Through distraction, sleep, and laziness, it binds.” (Bha.Gi.14.8)
While our tendency upon reading this verse is to judge that Tamas, the mode of darkness or ignorance, is “bad” it is important to recall the many practical, functional, and healing properties of this mahaguṇa, as one of the three modes of nature. Imagine a day without night, or a summer without winter. Things would be out of balance. Through proper application, quantity, and timing of tamas, it can be a medicine for us to arrive at a state of peace and harmony.
1. Pillars of Health
Classical Ayurveda’s three pillars of health are āhāra (diet; nutrition), nidrā (sleep; rest) and brahmacharya (energy conservation; proper use of energy). When we eat to maintain the first pillar of health, the direction of our digestion sends food inward and downward, in the directions of tamas. The heavy, dense, solid qualities of food sustenance fuels our body and mind with what it needs to transform that substance into energy. Our annamaya kosha or “food body,” is the most tamasic of all the energy sheaths, yet we must keep it strong it to maintain good health by consuming proper nutrients. If there is no fuel, there is no fire.
Without sufficient tamas, we cannot rest in sound, undisturbed sleep. A healthy amount of tamas gifts us stillness in our bodies, so we can slip into a restful state of sleep. While there is a dull quality involved in sleep, if our rajasic mind cannot detach from thinking about the busy activities of the day, our mind and subconscious will not have the opportunity to process undigested emotions and ideas, and we will feel lethargic and drowsy upon waking. Medicinal tamas is all about application in the right time and space. Thus, having tamas at night while resting is timely, but feeling sluggish and lethargic during the day when the sun is out, is considered untimely, and unideal.
The third pillar, brahmacharya, in one interpretation, is to conserve energy, and not waste our precious ojas on menial, insignificant trifles. Brahmacharya is also considered one of the 5 Yamas, or restraints (rules of conduct) in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which are the first steps in the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Healthy tamas allows us to ignore external disturbances that might cause us to waste energy.
For example, when leaves start falling from trees in the autumn season, healthy tamas allows us to tolerate the leaf accumulation until there are enough on the ground that it makes sense to rake them up. If we rake and collect leaves multiple times a day rather than allowing the time to let them collect, we will waste energy on re-doing could have been done in one go. Of course, over accumulation of leaves will create another form of tamas, so the factors of “when and how much” need to be observed. Preserving our energy for important things will lead us to longevity.
We need tamas for both physical and mental stability. Without ample amounts of all seven tissues, our bodies will waste away. Tamas has a cohesive quality that allows not only our bodily tissues to stay intact, but also for us to stick together in groups like friends and family, to stay in our current job, and live in a stable home, despite occasional disturbances.
The density and heaviness of tamas are related to the water and earth elements, and the aspect of gravity which pull them downward allow these elements to stay in a confined location. Having a steady dharma (duty, job, responsibility) also requires a certain degree of tamas, because it is that which holds us in place.
3. Creating balance between activity and rest
Without night and winter season, we cannot rest enough to restore our energy for the rajasic times of day and year. As humans, we are diurnal creatures whose nature is to be rajasic (active) during the day. When the sun goes down, it is our cue start slowing down and winding down for the evening, so that we have enough energy to speed up and start moving again when the sun rises. If the trees do not lose their leaves in the fall so that they can conserve their water, they will dry out very quickly and die.
The key to using tamas to achieve sattva, is to use it in at the right time, place, and circumstances.
Tamas can protect us from burning up, drying out, and wasting away. Just like a thin layer of fog on a rainy day allow for trees to drink, the cloud of tamas will offer some degree of blocking out external aggravates. If we plant a seed in the desert, where there are rarely clouds, we must cover the sprout with a tapestry or umbrella to offer the delicate sprout some shade. Otherwise, our sprout will not last. The fetus of a child is protected in a state of tamas in the womb of its mother, where it need not think about where its nourishment is coming from or how to go about feeding itself. Squirrels create ground burrows in the soil to create a getaway from hawks and other predatorial animals, where they will then sleep and hibernate all winter to be away from the cold.
5. Having possessions
“I have” is the expression of the ego in a tamasic state. We need a certain amount of things in order to function in this world. Until we become minimalist yogis who live in the forest eating only fruits, roots, and herbs to survive, we must rely on owning objects like a saucepan, a burner, a knife, and a kitchen with cupboards to put things in, simply to fulfill the basic human need of eating. Furthermore, we can use the tamasic aspect of the possessions we own towards service to others by sharing our excesses (giving away extras, inviting friends to meals, making donations). This could be considered a sattvic use of tamasic things.
6. Putting an end to things at the appropriate time
Sooner or later, all activities must eventually come to an end. The end to an activity is considered tamas . While doing a mild exertion of Surya Namaskar is a healthy form of exercise, we cannot to do 1000+ Sun Salutations nonstop, because eventually, our bodies become tired as a signal that tamas is kicking in and it is time to stop. Placing our phones on Do Not Disturb or Airplane mode at night is a form of blocking out any incoming messages that might alarm us during the night. This form of tamas sets a boundary we need to put an end to our electronics-time for the day.
7. The hook which leads us to higher vibrations
Tamas is often the material temptation that starts us on a path to something much higher than what we were originally striving for. In Yoga and Ayurveda, many people show up to these practices for superficial reasons like weight loss or Instagram poses, both of which are completely reasonable. Similarly, someone might show up to a temple service simply to eat prasād, because the food looks tasty.
No matter what the original motive, once we start on this path towards higher thinking and spirituality, there is no turning back. The person who originally sought a bikini bod will eventually end up with a more peaceful state of mind, a happier mood, a healthier way of living, and a heart full of love to share with the world. This is how the system of yoga works its way from lower to higher realms, from gross to subtle, tamasic to sattvic, so that even deepest depths of darkness, we start to see a glimmer of light.
Like a lit candle in a dark room, or a star in the sky on the darkest night, the gift of tamas and darkness blesses us with the capability to view light much more clearly than we can see it in the brightness of day. Tamas is not an enemy who we should shun on our path of yoga, but a friend who we should embrace as we allow rajas and tamas work together to illuminate the flame of sattva. That flame, once ignited, has nowhere to go but to expand.
*This article is dedicated to my dear teacher Balaramchandra das, for illuminating the pages of Bhagavad Gita with his love.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.