As one of the oldest belief systems in the world, it’s worth looking at the theory of Yoga and Hinduism and the basics of how energy operates. Strands of this theory can be found replicated in belief systems throughout the world and bear a striking resemblance to creationist theories the world over. Here, I attempt to give a bird’s eye view of the energetic system as a whole so that we can know the difference between our gunas and doshas, prakruti and purusha and how the five elements of yoga come into the equation.
It can be confusing when we start reading about Yoga theory the different terminology that is used, almost interchangeably, to describe various aspects of ourselves and energy. For example, we start with Prakruti as the original energy in the universe from whence all things came, yet we often hear someone talk of our doshas as our energy. In many cases, we just need to remember that doshas, gunas, the ten pairs and the five elements (ether, air, water, fire and earth) are finessing our descriptions of that original energy called prakruti.
It is a bit like talking about our body. We have arms and legs and we use those words when we want to be that bit more specific about what we are talking about. For example, we have injured our arm. But another person may just simply refer to our body as being hurt. Both are right, just one is a little bit more specific about the part we are talking about.
This constant refining of energy that goes on in Yoga is useful in bringing broad concepts down to a level where we can comprehend, communicate and treat imbalances in the body. This goes to the heart of Ayurvedic medicine, where without a system of generic descriptions (e.g. Vata, Pitta and Kapha), we would be describing over and over again the base energy (prakruti). So rather than drawing a roadmap each time of the body and trying to describe to someone how to trace the route to the cut on our arm, health practitioners simply say the arm, or in Ayurveda for example, the Kapha body type. They are simply classifications that help us in discerning the type of bodily constitution we are talking about and give us a guide towards what treatments may be suitable.
But back to the start!
Prakriti (or Prakruti) is the basic energy or substance from which all else comes. In can be thought of as the base level of energy which existed prior to anything else. In Bible terminology, it is the water (or void) that existed before God decided to create anything. It is the Qi of the Chinese, the Ki of the Japanese – it is everywhere and nowhere. In tandem with Prakriti is Purusha. While prakriti can be thought of in terms of matter that is manifest, Purusha is our consciousness, all that is unmanifest, our spirit and awareness. Prakruti is Mother Earth, Purusha is Father Spirit. Without the Earth, Spirit has nowhere to express itself. Without the Spirit, Earth is barren. Purusha is that bit of our consciousness that the Creator has entered. It is the awareness of everything that brings us to union – which is apt given that the purpose of Yoga is union.
They are not distinct from one another but require each other to exist. A bit like Yin and Yang, neither can exist in isolation.
Brahman is another form of purusha but is used in terms of the higher consciousness. Sometimes the two terms are used interchangeably when we talk of consciousness or divine awareness.
In Sanskrit, the word Prakriti can be translated at ‘Nature’ – if you envision an energy that permeates all of nature and its creation, that is prakriti. Our Purusha is the ‘knowing’ behind that Prakruti.
So how do we go from prakriti to the gazillions of forms of manifest energy that we now know – trees, plants, humans, anger, rivers, air and everything else? In Yoga energy theory (or Hindu philosophy), there are three characteristics that prakriti holds. The combinations of these three characteristics are what gives rise to a myriad of different forms of energy and by being able to discern these characteristics, it also gives us a means of being able to treat imbalances in ourselves via Ayurvedic medicine and Yoga.
These three characteristics, or qualities of Prakriti are called Gunas (meaning a string, thread or strand) and are broken down into Sattva, Rajas and Tamas.
Sattva is the strand relating to harmony, balance, goodness and constructive energy. When we exist in harmony with nature, eat organic plant foods, flow with life and exude peace and love, we are in Sattva! This is the state that Yogis aim to achieve in order to experience liberation. While this may be true, we also require some Rajas and Tamas to go through life. White is the colour primarily associated with Sattva, but also gold, blue and violet.
Rajas is a state of action and change. We are in motion, either physically, emotionally or mentally. So for example, anger is a state of Rajas as is running and walking. Colours that enhance Rajas are yellow, orange, red and purple.
Tamas is the state of darkness. It is chaotic and destructive. In this state, we are very materialistic and can easily lose our sense of spirit and higher purpose. Addiction, ignorance and greed are all words used to describe Tamas. Colours that bring us to this state are murky and dark – black, brown and grey.
Sattva, Rajas and Tamas are often condensed to the descriptive terms of balance, passion and darkness respectively.
From the three gunas there are ten pairs (also called gunas), or 20 qualities, that further describe manifest energy. These are:
Heavy – Light
Cold – Hot
Oily – Dry
Dull – Sharp
Smooth – Rough
Dense – Liquid
Soft – hard
Stable – Mobile
Gross – Subtle
Cloudy – Clear
These give rise to the five elements of Air, Fire, Water, Earth and Ether.
It is these five elements that are used to describe the three doshas. According to Ayurvedic theory, these three doshas are used to describe the constitution of a person. The three doshas are the Vata, Pitta, and Kapha.
Vata types have a lighter bone structure and a thinner build. They have characteristics that reflect the elements of Air and Ether. From the pairs above, the ones attributed to Vata are Dry, Light, Cold, Rough, Subtle, Mobile and Clear. Vata corresponds with the Heart Chakra and Throat Chakra.
Pitta types are a mix of Fire and Water. They have a medium build and are often boast a muscular physique. They can often blush or have red skin/freckles. The qualities attributed to Pitta are Hot, Sharp, Light, Liquid, Spreading and Oily. The Solar Plexus Chakra is the corresponding chakra for Pitta.
Kapha types combine a mixture of Water and Earth. They have strong frames but tend to gain weight easily. Qualities associated with Kapha are Heavy, Slow, Cool, Oily, Smooth, Dense, Soft, Stable, Gross and Cloudy. The chakras associated with Kapha are the Sacral Chakra and Root Chakra.