The Three Qualities of the Universe

The ancient yoga teachings stated that the food a person eats affects his state of consciousness. Paramhansa Yogananda (author of the world-renowned Autobiography of a Yogi), in his wide range of teachings, explained that specific spiritual influences are inherent in certain foods. Such influences include cereal for strength of character; beets for martial vigor; maple syrup for mental freshness.

According to ancient yoga tradition, the universe expresses three fundamental qualities or gunas, depending on the degree of clarity with which they express the original, Pure Consciousness out of which all things were manifested. In Sanskrit those qualities were named tamo guna (the which is dulling to the consciousness), rajo guna (which activates the mind), and sattwa guna (which clarifies and uplifts the understanding).

How Does This Apply to Our Food?

Certain foods were described as being tamasic because the effect they have on our awareness is stultifying. Others were considered rajasic because they tend to make one restless and overactive. For mental and spiritual happiness, the foods most highly recommended were sattwic, because they exert a calming and uplifting influence on one’s consciousness.

For a well-balanced and happy life, foods with a tamasic influence should either be kept to a minimum or eliminated altogether. One should moderate his intake of rajasic foods. Foods that help to induce calmness and mental upliftment should preponderate in the diet of people seeking inner peace. Modern life, however, is essentially restless and ego-centered. For people who must cope with worldly attitudes around them, or who have many outward demands made on their time and energy, Yogananda recommend that some rajasic foods be included in the diet. For them, a measure of rajas will help them to deal effectively with the restlessness in their environment.

Tamasic foods include all those which have a deadening or stupefying effect on the mind — foods such as alcoholic beverages and certain drugs, whether medical of hallucinogenic. Foods are tamasic also when they are lifeless, perhaps because they’ve been “cooked to death,” or have simply become stale, losing their vitality. Tamasic foods include also those which are too pungent, which is to say those with a strong, sharp taste. Excessively heavy foods, finally, which emphasize bulk rather than vitality, are also considered tamasic.

Rajasic foods include spicy foods such as mustard, onions, garlic, chili peppers, hot sauces, and other foods that have an irritating or over-stimulating effect on the body, and especially on the nervous system.

Sattwic foods are those which are calming to the nerves. They include especially fresh fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

Yogananda specified further that certain foods — as we stated above — exert not only a sattwic influence generally, but also help to develop specific spiritual qualities. Of fruits and vegetables that are produced from blossoms, cherries help to develop a cheerful nature; grapes, to develop love in the heart. To develop specific spiritual qualities one should consume especially foods that are imbued with those spiritual vibrations.

To eat heavily, however, even if one’s diet is otherwise sattwic, can have a tamasic influence, since excessive bulk darkens the mind rather than uplifting or energizing it.

Particularly important is the consciousness a person holds while eating. Important also is the consciousness with which the food is cooked or otherwise readied for the table. Even unspiritual food can be spiritualized by a cheerful, uplifted state of mind while one eats.

Getting an Extra Boost

It takes time to reap the full benefit from even the best of foods. In the present age, with its exaggerated restlessness, people are impatient for results. A fruit’s essence is most highly concentrated in the blossom from which the fruit appears. The essences are made from the blossoms — which would be impossible to do from the fruits themselves — and contain in potent form the spiritual quality of each food.

A major benefit of flower essences is that they affect their users without bloating their stomachs! (How many cherries, after all, would one need to become appreciably more cheerful? or grapes, to become more loving? Their sheer bulk might have a tamasic, rather than a sattwic, effect!) Two or three drops of flower essence taken several times a day can greatly increase the spiritual power of these foods.

An interesting aspect of these wonderful essences is that they have also been found to help animals. Animals, in fact, respond more spontaneously because there is no negative “placebo effect” due to doubts or other mental reservations.

However people are slowly becoming more open to energy-based solutions to challenges. Flower essences work with a person’s spiritual nature. They help people to reclaim inner peace, innate sense of dignity, and indomitable strength in the face of obstacles.

Commissioned by Swami Kriyananda, Lila Devi founded Spirit-in-Nature Essences in 1977 to create blossom-essences from the foods Paramhansa Yogananda described. Lila Devi is also the author of The Essential Flower Essence Handbook, published in 6 languages, which has been used by Doctors Across Borders to train their physicians.

The spiritual qualities, and the specific food from which each blossom-essence has been made, are listed below:

1) Lettuce: Calmness

2) Coconut: Uplifted spiritual awareness

3) Cherries: Cheerfulness

4) Spinach: Simplicity and guilelessness

5) Peach: Unselfishness

6) Sweet corn: Mental vitality

7) Tomato: Mental strength and endurance

8) Pineapple: Self-assurance

9) Banana: Humility rooted in calmness

10) Figs: Flexibility and self-acceptance; moderating over-strictness in self-discipline

11) Almond: Self-control, vitality, and moral vigor

12) Pear: Peacefulness

13) Avocado: Good memory

An apple blossom for peaceful clarity.

14) Apple: Peaceful clarity

15) Orange: Enthusiasm, hope

16) Blackberry: Purity of thought

17) Dates: Tenderness, sweetness

18) Strawberry: Dignity

19) Raspberry: Kindness, compassion

20) Grapes: Devotion, divine love

These essences act with or without our affirming their spiritual qualities. Their effectiveness is greatly enhanced, however, when combined with affirmations, uttered out loud or mentally with concentration, will power, and energy. Spirit-in-Nature Essences offers suggested affirmations to use with each essence.

About the Authors

Swami Kriyananda (1926-2013) is a direct disciple of Paramhansa Yogananda and the founder of Ananda. He has written extensively about the spiritual path and composed many pieces of spiritually uplifting music. In his final years he traveled and lectured around the world, showing others how to more fully live in their Highest Self.

Lila Devi is an Ananda minister and the founder of Spirit-in-Nature Essences. She is an engaging seminar leader with over 40 years’ experience who lectures nationally and abroad. She has authored 4 books: The Essential Flower Essence Handbook, Flower Essences for Animals, Bradley Banana and The Jolly Good Pirate, and From Bagels to Curry, a spiritual memoir about a Jewish yogi’s journey from a traditional religion to a spiritual community (Ananda). Lila is considered one of the foremost flower essence developers in the world today. She graduated with honors from the University of Michigan with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Psychology and a Secondary Education certificate.

After work at the end of the day I know that there are things I should do: exercise, fix a healthy dinner, and do spiritual practices. But those aren’t the easy things.

The easy things are the opposite: sit on the couch, eat whatever is sitting out, and browse random news sites. Maybe use Facebook, Instagram.

Do you ever have this happen?

Those sites and apps are the killer. If I was just sitting on the couch and doing nothing else, I might start watching my breath (meditating). If I was eating but didn’t let my energy drop (sitting on the couch and mindlessly consuming media), I’d be more inclined to have something healthy. The distractions aren’t helping…

Swami Kriyananda said, and this is honestly one of my favorite quotes of his, that “Restlessness is the playground of maya (delusion).” Why?

Without stillness, we can’t see clearly. If I try to take a picture but don’t stop the camera long enough for it to focus, every picture I take will be a blur. This is what restlessness — constant movement — does to the mind as well.

Becoming still, however, we naturally see more clearly and make healthier choices. The first step in getting there is to slow down and disengage from anything that is actively pulling us out of ourselves and away from stillness.

1. Unplug Some Things

In Paramhansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi there’s this wonderful old photo — except wait, I forgot, it’s not a photo, it’s from hundreds of years ago. No smartphones back then. It’s a drawing:

Not a lot going on. Just the practitioner of the spiritual arts, a spiritual teacher, and a quiet countryside. Ah, the simple life. Actually, there is one piece of technology, if you can spot it: an arm prop, used in certain yogic techniques like the AUM technique where the hands need to stay elevated.

Except during times of retreat, however, few of us can live that way-and even if we could, I’m not sure we would want to. Modern technology gives us a lot of good things, right? Medical advances; improvements in communication and learning; immersive storytelling can be helpful in building empathy; apps can even support our spiritual life. (Incidentally, check out the Ananda Meditation app!)

Still, there’s a point at which too much of a good thing becomes counter-productive. In recent years we’ve become even better at distracting ourselves from what really matters. Actually, we’ve become really good at it.

In Behavioral Addictions by Kenneth Rosenberg and Laura Feder, the authors report that 46 percent of people report that they couldn’t bear to live without their smartphones and up to 59 percent of people say that they’re dependent on social media, while admitting that this dependence makes them unhappy.

If you belong to this either of these groups (I know I do), you can do something about it. But it’s not enough to just turn off the Wi-Fi and take an evening off; we have to make unplugging a habit.

Think of a time in your day when you’re liable to turn to what Paramhansa Yogananda called “fillers”—distractions that don’t add to your quality of life. Maybe it’s at the end of your workday like it is for me. Now take a moment and imagine yourself in that situation. Visualize choosing a positive direction for your energy instead.

Our minds are powerful and with training can help us. One activity I’ve found helpful is to build routines at the inflection points of my day: when I wake up, for example, and decide not to check message right away, or when I come home from work and spend a few minutes in silence. I might be tired and hungry, but if I spend some time meditating first thing — at least before I plug in — I do feel better.

Make time each day to put down the phone, keep it out of sight and reach, and be still. What that bucolic drawing above represents to me is an opportunity, a state to keep in mind; a time before devices were so much at the center of our lives.

2. Do Some Deep and Controlled Breathing

The techniques of yoga can also help us — and I’m not just talking about the yoga postures, which are good, but also breathing and energy control techniques like pranayama.

This is a good introductory pranayama technique to try if you have a few minutes. We have a whole series of them if you want to explore more. (Oh, and, ahem, they are also on the Ananda Meditation app.…)

Yoga encourages us to work with our energy and raise it. When we get the energy right, it says, good things will flow naturally. We build a force field that keeps away restlessness and other negative states of consciousness.

3. Create an Environment of Focus

I have a secret to share, or perhaps confess. A few minutes ago, I created a new user account on my computer where I hid all the other apps, the web, etc. to create a space where I can focus.

As I’m writing this, I’m not technically unplugged — well, my laptop is running on its battery, so I guess technically I am — but this article is filling my screen and my Wi-Fi is turned off. My phone is in another room. Actually, I am in another room, in our guest room, away from any other distractions.

I haven’t written this much at one time in quite a while, so I guess it’s working! Changing our environment with an eye towards changing our consciousness is a time-honored yogic practice. Paramhansa Yogananda even went so far as to say, “Environment is stronger than will power.”

Focusing is itself a spiritual practice. This is why many people say “I meditate when I swim,” or “I meditate when I’m painting.” In these types of activities, we reach a state of flow and calmness that can be spiritually uplifting.

A relative and I were talking about this at a recent family gathering. Then we also talked about how the deeper states of meditation happen when our bodies are completely still and when the direction of our energy, instead of its habitual movement outward through the senses, reverses and flows inward. In those states, we touch the bliss of our own being.

To attain that level of stillness, the scientific technique of meditation is a great help. And it is available to learn… in the Ananda Meditation app. Sorry, I work on that app and I guess I can’t help mentioning it all the time!

Apps like this one are, in fact, a way to turn technology into an aid for our spiritual growth. It’s not all about unplugging. Technology, like the ancient science of yoga, is a tool, and when we get away from distractions we can use it to bring stillness and peace into our busy lives — gifts that we can then share with the world.

Last week we had a very successful and inspiring Inner Renewal week at Ananda Village. New ministers were ordained, new connections made, and hearts uplifted. Videos of some of the events will be posted soon. View pictures.

If Jesus were preaching today to an American audience, his message would not be, “Sell all ye have and give to the poor” or “Take no heed for the morrow, what ye shall eat, what ye shall put on.” These and other beautiful sayings of Jesus could not be strictly applied in the West today.

These teachings were applicable to the East two thousand years ago, a time when climatic and social factors made it possible for people to live much more simply than is generally possible today. At that time, a little labor would suffice to gain the necessities of life. Warm climate simplified the problem of clothing and housing.

Jesus thus was not advocating a mode of living far removed from the customary life of his day. Nor, if he were preaching today, would he advocate a radical change in our customary routine of life. In other words, Westerners would not need to blow up their factories, give up their banks and businesses, and go to the jungle in order to be spiritual.

We Are Now Living in a Different Age

God’s plan requires that the world evolve through ever-new and varied conditions, and we are now living in a different age. The teacher who is sincerely willing to sow the seeds of spirituality in the hearts of the multitude must accept the conditions of life in the age in which he finds himself.

Today, Jesus would point out that the forms of life are secondary, and that the only worthwhile change, the only permanent advance, is the inner evolution of mankind toward spiritual perfection. He would emphasize that the outer conditions of life will never be perfect until the inner life is perfect — that the effect cannot precede the cause.

Even if Westerners today desired to carry out the instructions given by Jesus to his Eastern listeners, they would not be able to do so with a good conscience. In most instances, family responsibilities would prevent them from selling all their goods and giving the money to the poor. If they took “no heed for the morrow, what ye shall eat, what ye shall put on,” they would not be acting rightly by those dependent on them, who have a right to expect their support and protection.

The Methods of the Successful Businessperson

Jesus was able to preach to the multitudes on mountaintops and other outdoor places. News of his meetings spread by word of mouth. But such delightful freedom from hall-rents and advertising expenditures is not possible today in the West, where audiences expect large, conveniently located, centrally heated meeting-places with comfortable seats.

If Jesus were preaching today in America, he would employ all the methods of the successful businessperson, and use newspapers as a means of drawing to him today’s multitudes. He would have to erect churches to house the religious multitudes, which would bring with it a need to concentrate on finances and raise money.

It is important to point out that these differences in social and climatic factors do not prevent Westerners from being, in every respect, true Christians, following faithfully the inner teachings and true essence of Christianity.

Westerners can embrace the scientific methods of inner realization from the East, and learn to know God through specific methods of concentration and meditation. They can pursue their worldly activities for the good of others, instead of for selfish ends. Ambition and wealth are spiritualized when used selflessly for the well-being of others.


From East-West Magazine, Sept-Oct 1926.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of Clarity Magazine)