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Eat Intuitively the Ayurvedic Way: Exploring the Gunas

Ayurveda seems to exude a certain ease, as if it were second nature. In a complex world, there's something simple and very personal about Ayurveda's approach to healing. You might even wonder where this ease of Ayurveda comes from. The answer is fundamental - Ayurveda shows you how your body naturally relates to food, disease, and the environment.

Ayurveda's natural approach to food can be compared to wearing a sweater on a cold day - you don't think about it, you just do it when you feel cold. Wearing a sweater doesn't feel like a big effort, in fact, it makes your life easier. Ayurveda has a similar approach to food. Many of us, for one reason or another, don't have words to express how food makes us feel. In the former example you might not know if you should put on a sweater, or in this case, when to eat carrots or pizza.

Ayurveda helps you articulate your experiences with food in meaningful ways. It highlights what you perhaps already felt about food, giving it meaning and showing you the therapeutic value of your experiences. This experiential approach to medicine is known by practitioners as the guna method. The guna method is the foundation of the Ayurvedic way of thinking, and Ayurveda's most valuable contribution to your personal health practice. The technique is simple, practical, and visceral, so you can easily grasp the nature of food, your imbalances, and what you need to heal.

You start by translating what you might be feeling after a meal using the gunas listed below. Once you have translated your experiences into these gunas, Ayurveda also shows you the gunas you need to restore balance. Although there are theoretically thousands of gunas, as many as there are feelings, practitioners across the world have loosely agreed that the 20 gunas found below have the most therapeutic value.

Since they focus on building your relationship to food, these gunas show you how to become a poet of medicine rather than a librarian. In Western nutrition, you may find yourself stuffed with lots of data, facts, and figures. The Western approach, while valuable, can leave you feeling dissociated from your feelings and intuition and unable to make decisions on your own. The gunas reconnect you to the naturally healthy relationship between your body, food, and the environment.

The gunas show you how to select food using feeling and intuition. They classify food by effect rather than nutritional content. This method helps you create a visceral and instinctual relationship with your food. You won't feel overwhelmed by your relationship with food the same way you would with numb data. For example, chilis create a hot experience while cucumbers create a cool one. Bread feels heavy while salads are light and refreshing. Butter is oily and smooth while popcorn is dry and rough. Black pepper is sharp while cheese is dull. These effects might seem subtle at first, but soon it becomes second nature.

Once you've mastered the gunas of food, you can use the guna method with your ailments as well. For example, in Ayurveda you could translate your sinus congestion as gooey, heavy, and cold because that's how sinus congestion makes you feel. This concept is not new or unique to Ayurveda. Remember when sinus infections were still called 'common colds'? That's an example of the guna method that was common in our culture only a hundred years ago.

To counteract imbalance and restore your health, you should select food using gunas that are opposite to your disease. The sharpness of black pepper balances the gooey dullness of sinus congestion. The lightness of a homemade broth counteracts heavy. The heat of turmeric dispels cold. As you can see, selecting a home remedy becomes more obvious when you rename your diseases with feelings.

To Learn More, Click on a Guna Below

Missing Gunas?

On Joyful Belly we've selected only those gunas that are most useful in cooking. There are twenty gunas in all. Many of the other gunas are useful in treating skin conditions. Here are some of the other gunas, and their useful equivalents on Joyful Belly:
sharppungent For dullheavy
For roughdry For densegooey
For hardheavy For softliquid
For mobilerajas For stabletamas
For subtleclear For grossheavy
For stickygooey

The First Eight Gunas

GunaEffectsExample Food
Coldcontracts, dries, soothescucumber, cilantro
Hotexpands, flushes, inflameswine, chili
Oilynourishes, moisturizes, clogscheese, olive oil
Dryabsorbs, ages, harshcranberry, celery
Heavystabilizes, strengthens, growsred meat, wheat
Lightcleanses, diminishespopcorn, salad
Gooeypacifies, pacifies, promotes and increases mucus, stagnatesyogurt, cheese
Sharpirritates, flushes, stimulateschili, black pepper

Facts About Gunas

  • The gunas are the 20 most important feelings, medicinally speaking.
  • Gunas are organized into 10 pairs of opposites.
  • Similar gunas aggravate each other.
  • Opposite gunas balance or pacify each other.

Gunas & Dosha

The three doshas Vata, Pitta, and Kapha describe three relationships between gunas. Some gunas tend to have affinity for each other. For example, your skin dries out in the winter, thus, cold causes dry quality (Vata). When tissue is irritated it becomes inflamed, thus, pungent flavors increase hot quality (Pitta). When you eat heavy foods they depresses your metabolism, therefore, heavy foods cause cold (Kapha). The three relationships between gunas are:
  • Vata: cold, dry, light
  • Pitta: pungent, hot, oily
  • Kapha: heavy, dull,oily
Even the five elements and the doshas are simply common collections of gunas.

What About Satva, Rajas, & Tamas?

In yoga, the gunas are Satva, Rajas, and Tamas. In Ayurveda, these are called the maha gunas. Rajas and Tamas are considered to be the doshas of the mind. Satva is considered to be a balanced mind.

Note: To make the best use of Ayurveda, keep your sense organs sharp and accurate. Ayurveda offers many techniques for sharpening the five senses. Development of the five senses offers a clearer perspective on reality and helps you identify patterns of imbalance.

About the Author

John Immel, the founder of Joyful Belly, teaches people how to have a healthy diet and lifestyle with Ayurveda. His approach to Ayurveda exudes a certain ease, which many find enjoyable and insightful. His online course Balance Your Ayurvedic Diet in a Week provides tools for gracefully healing with Ayurveda to thousands. John also directs Joyful Belly's School of Ayurveda , which specializes in digestive tract pathology & Ayurvedic nutrition. John and his wife Natalie recently published Explore Your Hunger: A Guide to Hunger, Appetite & Food.

John's interest in Ayurveda and digestive tract pathology was inspired by a complex digestive disorder acquired from years of international travel, including his public service work in South Asia. John's commitment to the detailed study of digestive disorders reflects his zeal to get down to the roots of the problem. His hope and belief in the capacity of each & every client to improve their quality of life is nothing short of a personal passion. John's creativity in the kitchen and delight in cooking for others comes from his family oriented upbringing. In addition to his certification in Ayurveda, John holds a bachelor's degree in mathematics from Harvard University.

John enjoys sharing Ayurveda within the context of his Catholic roots, and finds Ayurveda gives him an opportunity to participate in the healing mission of the Church. Jesus expressed God's love by feeding and healing the sick. That kindness is the fundamental ministry of Ayurveda as well.

Psychological Effects of Food - Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas
The Three Ingredients of Vitality: Ojas, Tejas & Prana
Acid / Alkaline Diet
Gluten Free Diet
Introduction to an Ayurvedic Diet
How to Make Good Food Choices
The Six Tastes
10 month online program starts Oct 10th
Starts Oct 2017

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What type of oil should I rub on my skin to stay warm?

- Sara Cuthbert, Woodstock, ON, 05-05-11 (Reply)
Coconut and sunflower oil are cooling to the skin. Sesame and mustard oil are heating to the skin. Olive oil is mildly heating. Thanks for asking! -john
- John Immel, Asheville, NC, 01-17-12 (Reply)
I like liquorice and hardly eat it, but for the last 2 months I want to eat a lot of liquorice - is my body telling me something?
- , 09-06-14 (Reply)
You say there are 20 gunas, but above there are 23. "Toxic" is clearly not one of the 20. Are the other 2 without Sanskrit equivalents "difficult" and "easy"? Why did you feel the need for them?
- Victoria, Istanbul, NY, 02-13-15 (Reply)
You say there are 20 gunas, but above there are 23. "Toxic" is clearly not one of the 20. Are the other 2 without Sanskrit equivalents "difficult" and "easy"? Why did you feel the need for them?
- Victoria, Istanbul, NY, 02-13-15 (Reply)
How are you translating Slakshna?
- Victoria, Istanbul, NY, 02-13-15 (Reply)
Gooey & slimey (slakshna) are pretty close to being the same on Joyful Belly. Hope that helps!
- Natalie Immel, Asheville, NC, 02-13-15 (Reply)
The traditional 20 gunas are heavy, light, slow, sharp, hot, cold, dry, oily, slimy, rough, dense, liquid, soft, hard, subtle, gross, stable, mobile, cloudy, clear. We've tried to simplify them into more practical terms for our users.
- Kimberly Kubicke, Wall, NJ, 07-21-16 (Reply)

What is Joyful Belly?

Browse recipes and hundreds of other ingredients on this extensive educational website. Joyful Belly helps people confidently choose food that restores their healthy glow, using the ancient technique of Ayurveda. Our extensive collection of online recipes, ingredients, and articles makes health easy. To get started, take the free dosha quiz to find your Ayurvedic body type.

What is Ayurveda?

Learn about Ayurveda from the author of this article and founder of Joyful Belly,
John Immel.

* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The information and products on this website are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
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