Three is indeed the magic number. Throughout history we’ve seen the number three in religion, spirituality, politics, power and nature, and still today it’s recognised as a powerful number.
The three kings, the holy trinity, three stooges, three-headed gods and goddesses, three Buddhist holy scripture, Freud’s three-fold theory of personality, the three Inca deities of the sun, moon and storm, and if you were in the UK during the last world cup, you’re probably more than familiar with three lions on the shirt…
Three was the number of harmony for Pythagoras, and completeness for Aristotle, strength for Taoism and in China, three has historically symbolised loyalty, respect and refinement. In terms of the Yoga tradition, the number three is prevalent, in the three Ayurvedic doshas of Vata, Pitta a Kapha, of the three gunas Tamas, Rajas and Sattva, the three main nadis of Ida, Pingala and Sushumna, and as we’ll focus on here, the Trimurti and three elements of creation, preservation and destruction….
Trikonasana is one of the postures you’re likely to come across in many a modern yoga class. The full name utthita trikonasana is composed of the Sanskrit words utthita meaning ‘extended’, tri meaning ‘three’, kona meaning ‘angle’ and asana meaning ‘posture’. The three angles join together to create the triangular structure which has also been deemed important for thousands of years, appearing in ancient scriptures, in the form of the Egyptian pyramids, and the trident which is featured surprisingly often in mythology, religion and iconography.
Structurally, a triangle is thought to be strong and stable, able to support huge amounts of weight and withstand great pressures. Representationally, the triangle is masculine in essence, symbolising power, divinity, fire, the heart, mountains, prosperity, harmony and royalty. The upturned triangle is feminine, lunar, representing the great mother, water, and grace. It’s clear when observing the simple shape of the triangle, how the three lines imply a sense of resolution and finality, absolution and perfection.
Stability and Grace
The importance of looking at the posture of Trikonasana beyond the physical shape is partly due to this careful balance of stability and grace, allowing for a sense of resolution or at least progression and somewhat comfort. If the triangle is representational of all these things, it would make sense to practice it in a way that allows the body and mind to cultivate a sense of resolution – whether that means the final outcome is aesthetically ‘perfect’ or not.
When we practice an asana, the balance between stability and grace, or stability and ease (known as sthira and sukha in Sanskrit) is considered one of the most important aspects to attain. Each posture is indeed a physical shape and practiced on the physical plane, but it’s also something to be experienced, and to be experienced in all three aspects of mind, body and spirit, and three stages of creation, preservation and destruction, symbolised by the Hindu Trimurti.
Cycles of Manifestation
The Trimurti are often thought to form the overarching three aspects of what you might understand as god, the universal spirit, or your own understanding of a power greater than us all. This sacred grouping of Brahma (creator), Vishnu (preserver) and Shiva (destroyer) symbolise the three cycles of manifestation and nature. Everything in this world – from a civilisation, a tree, a relationship, a meal, to an illness, dream or thought – moves through this cycle. An essential yogic teaching is the ability to understand and accept this cycle of three, as it’s inevitable we’ll all move though it fully at some point.
When we can observe the cycle of three in everyday life, we’re able to connect more to the fact that everything changes, and that change is an inherent part of nature. When practicing an asana, the creation process could be the move towards or into the shape and everything accompanying it; the mental process of figuring out how to get there, the perception of ability, the limbs reaching out and the articulation of joints.
The process of preservation could be the ability to sustain the posture and all that happens within the shape; the movement of breath, the mind chatter and glimpses of stillness, the engagement of muscles and stretching of tissue. Finally, the destruction aspect of a posture or anything else for that matter can be understood more readily instead as transformation. For nothing is ever annihilated, only transformed from one matter to another. Shiva the lord of destruction doesn’t govern the ability to totally wipe something out and figuratively ‘delete’ it, but the movement of transformation from one state to another, just as fire transforms wood to ash or water to steam.
As we move out of one posture and into another, we transform and transition, leaving behind one experience and moving to the next. When chanting Aum at the end of a class, this too signifies the three states of creation, preservation and transformation, and this continues long after we leave the yoga mat too….
What may at first appear a somewhat simple shape holds a depth of understanding that we can apply both in class and in daily life. Can you cultivate both stability and ease? Can you hold your foundations firmly and withstand pressure from both outside and in? Can you work with both masculine and feminine qualities to find a sense of harmony? Perhaps most importantly, can you simply be present for the creation, preservation and transformation of one moment in life to the next?