While growing up, my family always kept an altar in our home. Whether it was in the corner of a kitchen counter or an entire room dedicated to the space, we had something.
Altars are a very common feature of a Hindu household, who believe that spirituality is a part of everyday life. Having a designated place for worship and prayer in the home cultivates in one higher thinking and living, as spirituality becomes built into daily existence.
As my norm, I didn’t really notice all of the different facets of our altars throughout the years, although they weaved through them common elements. As I got older, I learned that meditation spaces or altars should contain specific principles in order to maximize our efforts in reaching higher states of consciousness.
Below are 8 yogic principles every altar should include:
1. Cleanliness. Your altar should be set up in a place free from clutter and dust. It should be away from foot traffic and spaces in the home reserved to perform other functions, such as cooking, sleeping, and cleaning. Shoes shouldn’t be worn in your altar space. When I was kid if I ever wore any kind of footwear inside our sacred space it meant big trouble! You should treat your meditation altar and the area around it like a holy shrine. The same daily principles that we apply to our bodies are applied to this sanctuary we create inside our homes. We shower, brush our teeth, and wear clean clothes every day, similarly, we should do our best to respect this sacred space by keeping it as clean as possible. After all, it would be very challenging to relax and focus in a place with stacks of papers, piles of clothes, and the sound of a toilet flushing.
2. Quiet. We should try our level best to create our altars in quiet areas. This includes not only sitting away from where you can easily hear outside noises, such as street traffic, cars, garbage trucks, and lawn mowers, but also the sounds coming from inside of your home. Being around television, music, and family members talking on the phone, are all part of the outside stimulation that prevents us from going within ourselves. We need to also be mindful of creating our spaces away from negative energy, such as yelling and cursing. We want our altar to exude a positive and uplifting energy, away from both physical and mental disruptions.
3. Meditation Asana. In the West, we regard asana as being equivalent to the complete practice of yoga, however, there are many more aspects to it. Asana, which is only the physical postures in yoga, are referred to in meditation as well, as the optimal poses to sit in while meditating. These particular ways of sitting better prepare for the flow of the kundalini energy (located in the base of the spine) to activate and rise within the body, entering each chakra on the way to ultimate consciousness. Some of these postures include Sukhasana, Padmasana, and Ardha Padmasana.
While creating your altar, the space you designate in front of it for sitting, can be regarded as one the most important steps you take in preparing for meditation. If you are not seated comfortably, then all of your attention will go to the aches and pains in your body. Experiment with aids, such as pillows and cushions, and find a seated position that you can sustain for a period of time.
4. Cool Temperature. There is a reason why you hear about monks meditating in caves. Cooler temperatures are more conducive to focusing our attention. If you’ve ever meditated in hot weather, then you know how much more energy it takes to sit and concentrate. Humidity and heat quickly uses up our bodies’ reserves, causing us to become lethargic. Meditation is a conscious activity, where we rely on our strength and stamina to elevate our minds. Finding or creating a comfortable temperature to sit in, can make a significant difference in how long we sit and how deep we can take our concentration.
5. Natural Elements. As part of Vedic philosophy, yoga believes that human beings are part of the same energy as the universe and natural elements. We are all part and parcel of one another, and derive from one transcendental cosmic energy. We can see this energy manifested in the elements, which include prithvi-earth, agni-fire, vayu-air, apas-water, and akasha-ether. When we can add representations of these elements onto our altar, we are not only paying homage to that which helps to sustain us as human beings, but we are also uplifting our spirits. Every morning my mother picks fresh flowers from her garden to put on the altar. In India, it is customary that each evening a candle be lit on the home altar to welcome dusk and allow the light to continue shining. Lighting incense, keeping holy water on the altar, or adding photos of the sun, moon, trees, can all help us feel connected to a greater power.
6. Facing East. We meditate on the principle of going from darkness to lightness. Since the sun rises in the East, we want to face this direction as a way of allowing knowledge to shed light on our minds, and free us from the suffering and the illusions of this world. If facing East isn’t an option, then the next best direction is North. In India, facing South has negative connotations, for instance the dead are laid with their feet to the South and homes with the front door facing the South are avoided from being bought. If you absolutely cannot put your altar in a place that would allow you to face the North or East, then at the very least avoid facing South.
7. Containing Energy. During meditation, energy starts to build inside of our bodies that helps elevate us to higher states of thinking and being. In order to contain it and keep it from dissipating outside of ourselves, we sit on natural materials. Otherwise, the ground pulls our energy towards it and all of the hard work we are putting into our meditation practice gets lost into the layers of the earth. If you ever see photos of gurus or even Hindu Gods, you will notice that they are sitting on animal skin or silk. Being intentional about what you sit on while meditating can help take your practice to another level.
8. Level Altar. When setting up your altar it should be on eye level, so that you are not sitting higher or lower from it. We want to maintain equanimity between our place of sanctity and ourselves. If you decorate your altar with idols or photos of deities, then we show reverence by not sitting higher than those we are honoring. At the same time, if you are seated lower than your altar, it would be a struggle to see it. When we can maintain a balance, we are more likely to reap the benefits from our practice.