Yoga Changes Vicious Circles into Virtuous Circles

Dr Rishi Vivekananda Saraswati

What is the fundamental reality that governs whether we evolve or not? Some people just seem to go up; their timing is excellent, the right people and the right things come their way, they are surrounded by smiling people who love them, and they even maintain abundant good health. Life for them and the people they influence just gets better and better. Good luck? Maybe, but other people, who grow up in the same kind of situation, just go from one disaster to another. Things rarely come together for them, nobody is there to help them when they need it, their lives are a long string of fractured relationships, and to make matters worse they are sick most of the time. Their life just gets worse and worse as they are stuck down in a morass of trouble. Bad luck? Possibly, but why do they get stuck?

The different aspects of the chakras within us are modified by the level of their development as defined by the gunas: sattwa, the state of truth, simplicity and equanimity in action; rajas, the state of dynamism and activity combined with full ego involvement; and tamas, the state of inertia and ignorance.

Lord Krishna said in the Bhagavad Gita (14:18), "Those who are seated in sattwa go upwards; the rajasic dwell in the middle; and the tamasic, abiding in the function of the lowest guna, go downwards." How does this happen? Maybe the main causes are the vicious circles that are the curse of tamas, and the virtuous circles that are the blessing of sattwa. What is a vicious circle? Webster's Dictionary says: "A vicious circle is a chain of events in which the response to a difficulty creates a new problem that aggravates that original difficulty."

The virtuous circles of sattwa do just the opposite. The response to an occurrence creates a positive result that improves the whole situation, and as it repeats, the whole thing becomes better and better.

How do these express themselves in life? In rajas the vicious and virtuous circles are about equal, so they average out as Krishna implied, but things go from bad to worse in tamas and from good to better to best in sattwa. This is why people who get stuck in tamasic qualities in some of their personality aspects need to become involved in yoga to lift themselves up out of that morass.

If we look around us, we can see many examples of the way yoga changes vicious circles into virtuous circles, and how this allows us to get out of the downward spirals of tamas and evolve towards our best. How does it all come about?

In tamas the vicious circles go on three levels of the individual: the physical body (annamaya kosha), the vitality body (pranamaya kosha) and the mental body (manomaya kosha). The same applies to the virtuous circles in sattwa, which also have the benefits of the intellectual level (vijnanamaya kosha) and the bliss level (anandamaya kosha).

The basic mind aspects of manomaya kosha consist of: ahamkara - the sense of 'I'-ness; chitta - our memory; manas -our perceptions, thinking and emotions; and buddhi - the lower levels of our higher mind.

The sense of 'I'-ness (ahamkara)

The vicious circles of tamas: At the tamasic level, people experience themselves as isolated from others. They may be alienated if there is a lot of fear, or maybe even paranoid if they project anger. Vicious circles can come from disregard for the needs or rights of others, because of emotional distance. As a result other people retaliate with their version of disregard, and this bounces backwards and forwards, getting worse as it goes along. Yoga relieves the emotional tensions that feed the feelings of isolation and so improves sociability. Another source of vicious circles in this modality is low self-esteem. This leads to lack of confidence which in turn leads to failure and more loss of self esteem. The great yogic panacea for this is karma yoga, where self-esteem is guarded by non-attachment to outcomes and is increased by the good work one is doing.

In some people the problem may not just be isolation, it may be alienation. Very tamasic levels of 'I'-ness can give a strong experience of 'self-reference', in which people imagine that events happening 'out there' in some way refer to them. They may misinterpret innocent actions, remarks or gestures as intentional slights, insults or contempt directed at them. Yoga creates a general reduction in negative emotions that can help people in this state; for instance, by balancing ida and pingala.

The virtuous circles of sattwa: In the sattwic state the 'I'- ness is not isolation it is union - an experience of 'I' as a part of 'us'. There is an awareness of 'we' rather than 'me', so this unitive relationship with other people raises our compassion, helpfulness, kindness, cooperation and friendship. Usually other people return these, so we are receiving all these beneficial 'gifts' from those around us. This benevolence builds up in the form of a virtuous circle for all concerned.


The vicious circles of tamas: People don't usually realize, but what goes into forming our perceptions of what we sense outside is what is inside us! So what I 'see' out there is to a great extent created from what is going on inside my own mind. Freud called this process 'projection' and was interested in the 'sick' stuff we 'see' out there because it is really inside. The exploiter sees the world as exploitative or exploitable, the hostile person sees it as hostile, the 'power freak' sees power games everywhere and so on. Then the person's thinking, emotions and behaviour will be at least partly determined by these perceptions. The vicious circle comes from the negative perceptions of what is out there, arousing negative responses inside, which increase hyper-vigilance. This results in projecting more negativity out there. By eliminating the negative content 'in here' yoga improves the quality of our perceptions of the world.

The virtuous circles of sattwa: We can experience our world as frightening, angry, sad, power crazy, etc. because we project these tamasic qualities from inside our own natures. However, if we have sattwic qualities dominant in our natures, we may project those too. We have a positive experience of the world, so we respond to it in a like way. When we feel loving, we see love and lovability in the world. When we feel happy, everybody seems to be smiling at us. Everything around us responds to us in kind, so the quality of our experience goes up and up, and it all grows in the positive way of a virtuous circle.


The vicious circles of tamas: The things that we remember most easily at any moment correspond with our current feeling state. If we are feeling depressed, our memories will be about past hurts and disappointments. If we are anxious, our memories will be about all the frightening occurrences in our life; if angry, all the affronts and anger from other people will be foremost. Now remember that our assessment of what we can expect in the future is based mainly on our past experiences. So the bad memories of past experiences such as insecurity, material losses, sadness, helplessness, hurt, grief, isolation etc. will paint an equally bleak future. We become pessimistic, give up trying, and become stuck in the inertia of tamas. Bad memories also lead to bad behaviour and retaliation from outside gives more bad memories.

The virtuous circles of sattwa: Because the things we remember most easily at any moment correspond with our current feeling state, our feelings in the sattwic states of our personality aspects will be positive ones, so they will evoke positive memories. These will transfer into the future as optimism, so we will be motivated to do more in the sattwic style of nurturing ourselves and helping other people and the world, with the obvious virtuous circles that ensue from those activities.


The vicious circles of tamas: The thinking content at this level is based on perceptions from outside or mental rumination from inside. Tamasic perceptions cause negative thinking which then joins in with the negative rumination and it all goes from bad to worse. It feeds on itself; for instance, building up a little insult or rejection into a major catastrophe. The quality of a person's thinking at this level is also poor. It is full of irrational judgements, distortions of logic, denial, justifications, excuses, etc. We can imagine just how disabling this poor quality thinking can be.

The virtuous circles of sattwa: At sattwic levels, our instinctual thinking is very much under the sway of our higher thinking, so the selfishness of 'me first and only' that is common at the lower levels of the gunas is not active. Rather, the thinking is from the intellectual (buddhi) level so it is ethical and considerate of other people.

Sattwic levels use the intellect, sometimes to high levels, to cope with our lives. The quality of the thinking is good, without the irrationality, poor judgements, illogical distortions, justifications and excuses for problem behaviour, etc. of tamas. Also, the content of thinking that is provoked by our experiences of our world is good because our experiences are good. Similarly the content of our ruminations will be positive, because it is a blend of thinking about our experiences and of our memories. As these augment our emotions and behaviour, their positive quality leads to positive outcomes.

At high levels of sattwa our judgements, decisions etc. about any aspects of our life will be augmented by intuition and wisdom. Those decisions will be right, and the consequences that flow from them will be the best in the circumstances. As a result we will be creating 'win-win' situations, with all their advantages, including virtuous circle outcomes.


The vicious circles of tamas: The vicious circles of negative emotions are well known, and are the cause of many diseases as well as much unhappiness and strife. All emotions can have a negative complexion, but to mention just the three main ones, the vicious circles are:

  • Anxiety -> symptoms -> fear of illness/madness/death -> more anxiety
  • Anger -> aggression -> social conflict -> more anger
  • Dejection -> inertia -> failure -> more dejection -> maybe depression

We can see that any of these can build up, becoming worse as time goes on. This is a typical example of: "the tamasic, abiding in the function of the lowest guna, go downwards." Yoga practices can break these vicious circles, starting the person on the upward path of confidence, kindness and joy.

The virtuous circles of sattwa: At sattwic levels the emotions we experience such as fear, anger, remorse, regret etc are reality based, such as reasonable anger at injustices, or regret over a personal act or omission. They lead to action to try to reverse the situation, such as stopping an injustice. Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela are beautiful examples of reasonable anger that worked. Or we make amends and resolve not to repeat the inappropriate action.

The sattwic feelings we experience are the positive ones such as security, joy, humour, confidence, good self-esteem, love, compassion, kindness and empathy. As well as making us feel wonderful, they also lead to beneficial behaviour, and the ensuing virtuous circles.


The vicious circles of tamas: The behaviour engendered by anxiety will include withdrawal, dependency and addiction. The vicious circle here is the way the sense of helplessness in the face of fear produces more fear. In addition, the methods we use to try to relieve anxiety, such as addiction and dependency create problems of their own. The behaviour arising from anger is usually vengeance, aggression, violence etc., and the vicious circle here is the retaliation from the people we have hurt, which causes us to be more angry and aggressive. The behaviour from the dejection/depression vicious circle is withdrawal which results in loneliness, the feeling of being unloved, and inertia which causes an inability to attend to our responsibilities, with the resulting guilt.

Self-fulfilling prophecies: Another problem is that tamasic interactions with the world attract responses from other people which justify all the above attitudes, and this perpetuates them as self-fulfilling 'prophecies'. A good example is paranoia where the person believes that they are the victims of persecution from 'out there'.

How does paranoia happen? The paranoid person denies their own anger and projects it onto others, so they see the other person as dangerous to them. In defence, they retaliate with anger and threatening behaviour of their own. This does make the other person (who was originally neutral or even friendly) angry and defensive. Thus the paranoid person's original assessment of the other person as being angry and dangerous is proved 'right' - it has become a self-fulfilling prophesy, and justifies further aggression.

Another problem is that the paranoid person can't see their responsibility for this trouble, because of the lack of insight of people at the tamasic level. As well, the crux of paranoia is that the problem is 'out there' so "It's not me, it's him!" If such a relationship continues, it can develop into a very difficult one, or even a disaster. Psychiatrists and others who have dealt with paranoid people will recognize this difficult situation, and the intractable morass of vicious circles that it is.

The virtuous circles of sattwa: We see the positive outcomes of our sattwic attitudes most clearly in the area of our behaviour. If we interact with people with love, joy, kindness, consideration, helpfulness and the other sattwic qualities, they respond to us in the same way, and the whole relationship continues to improve as virtuous circles. Even if the other person does not respond in this way; for instance if they exploit our kindness, our vairagya allows us to 'let it pass', and the empathy that comes from sattwa allows us to understand them. This can even help them too.

The physical body

The vicious circles of tamas: Physical difficulties are caused by the mental and emotional states that usually accompany the tamasic level of functioning. They are stress, tension, dejection, anger, various imbalances etc., which give rise to typical psychosomatic illnesses, immune system dysfunction, organ damage and a vast array of symptoms. The person becomes worried or depressed and the anxiety or depression causes more of the abnormal workings of the body. In this way it goes from bad to worse as typical vicious circles. The typical tamasic lifestyles and intake of food and drinks also have a detrimental effect on the body. Yoga has a positive effect on our lifestyle as well as the body, the mind and the vitality, and reverses these.

The virtuous circles of sattwa; The lifestyle, thinking and emotions of sattwa are conducive to health and longevity. A person is likely to experience robust good health, absence of symptoms and satisfaction with their body, which reflect back onto the body as positive influences.

The vitality body

The vicious circles of tamas: When a person is in a state of lethargy and inertia, they stop doing things, sit around, watch all the bad news on TV, and become depressed and more and more physically inactive. This allows their energy to run down even more, so the vicious circle forms.

The virtuous circles of sattwa: Sattwa encourages us to be optimistic, enthusiastic, active and to gel out and do things, usually for the benefit of others. This keeps our vitality high and encourages ongoing activity which keeps the vitality flowing.

All the sattwic elements combine to create the way we behave in our world, and they determine the virtuous circles that form around us. As yoga lifts us up out of the more tamasic levels, this becomes more and more our way of life. As Krishna said we "go upwards", and if we look at the process clearly, it is obvious that it all accelerates in the direction of our evolvement.

This article is an excerpt from the forthcoming book Practical Yoga Psychology by Dr Rishi Vivekananda, published by Yoga Publications Trust.