By Karson McGinley
(adapted from an article posted by the Chopra Center)
Whether you are consciously aware of it or not, everyone craves a sense of the sacred in their lives. Whether it’s sacred time, a sacred space, or sacred relationships, there is a human craving for that which is to be revered and respected. Having an altar in your home is one way in which you can connect to the sacred and your spirituality on a daily basis.
Why Make an Altar?
“That which is placed on the altar is altered.” ~Marianne Williamson
Altars have been used for millennia in religious ceremonies and holy architecture. Traditionally the site of a sacrifice or ritual, altars are typically associated with making offerings to God or Gods. However, a home altar is a powerful way to connect to that which matters most in your life a physical representation of beauty, spirit, connection, and a reminder to simply slow down and breathe. It needn’t live up to anyone’s standards but your own. In fact, it is a powerful way of expressing your individuality and creativity.
Your altar is an outer representation of your inner attunement. It’s a way of honoring yourself by having a place that is solely yours and represents your ideals. Over time, just entering the space of the altar has an effect on your energy and mood.
Altars are usually on a flat or raised surface. Your altar could be on a small table or platform, but it could also be on a shelf or tabletop. However large or small, keep your special space dedicated to its purpose. Place protective boundaries around the area, and keep it clear and clean of debris and clutter.
What Goes on My Altar?
Here is a list of items that you can choose to include on your altar.
You determine what makes an item sacred. It could be a bracelet your young child made for you or a handkerchief that was passed down from your great grandfather. If the item has significance to you and brings you feelings of peace, love, or inspiration, it’s a good choice.
The Five Elements of Nature
Some traditions suggest that you represent the five elements on your altar as a way of harmonizing the nature around and within you. For example, live flowers in a vase represent the earth and water elements, and a lit candle represents the fire, air, and space elements.
Something for Each of the Senses
Feed your senses by providing “food” for each of them. Simply making your altar beautiful is a feast for the eyes, and a small bell or instrument creates a sound that carries its energy to the ears. For smell, light a scented candle or incense, or use essential oils. For your taste buds, the Hindu tradition offers prasad in the form of sweets or fruit to the Divine. And finally, for touch, consider the cushion you sit on, and an optional shawl or blanket that is only used while engaged in your sadhana (spiritual practice).
Represent the qualities that you’d like to cultivate in yourself with murtis (statues) of the deities. These statues can come from any religion or culture as long as they mean something to you.
Some popular suggestions are the elephant-headed Ganesha (the remover of obstacles), Saraswati (the Hindu Goddess of the arts and knowledge), and Hanuman for his devotion and love. In Tantric philosophy, the deities aren’t considered anything outside of you but represent aspects of your own human nature. Quan Yin is the Buddhist Goddess of compassion, for example, and can help you manifest empathy and love within your own heart. Whatever calls to you is meaningful.
Mala or Prayer Beads
Place your mala or rosary beads on your altar when they’re not in use. Hanging your beads on your murtis keeps their energy sacred.
Yantras are visual representations of deities and can help with meditation. They are patterns of geometric shapes and symbols that help focus your mind and represent specific deities in Hindu culture.
Oracle Cards or Pieces of Art
Place your oracle deck, or certain cards, on display on your altar. Small pieces of art that inspire and encourage you also bring positive energy to your space.
An important part of the yogic tradition is svadhyaya, or study of the Self through sacred texts, or shastras. Any text (like the Bible, A Course in Miracles, The Bhagavad Gita, or The Yoga Sutras) would have a special home on or near your altar. Make them accessible so they can be a regular part of your spiritual rituals.
Along with your sacred texts, you can have your journal and special pens on your altar. If writing is a part of your practice, keep a special journal that holds within it your blessed energy.
Photographs of your teachers, guru, children, or relatives help to bring you into a state of oneness with those who inspire you and have helped you come to the current moment.
What Do I Do with My Altar?
Making the altar is an important part of the practice, but it is simply décor until your use it for your sadhana. With your intention, your altar becomes the special space in which you experience your personal rituals. Prayer, meditation, and chanting will “feed” the items on your altar with powerful energy, which will in turn “feed” you each time you return.
One of the nice things about having a home altar is that it is an ever-present part of your experience, and each time you walk by it, you can receive some of its energy. It can also call you to drop in for moments of connection throughout your day.
May your altar help you stay connected to the intentions you set for your day and your life. Enjoy the process and receive more peace, calm, and love in every area of your life. Anything that helps you feel closer to your Divine nature is worthwhile, so be flexible, curious, and creative.
About the Author:
Karson McGinley is the founder of Happy-U ( Holistic Approach to Positive Psychology & Yoga) and the co-owner (along with her husband) of Happy-U Namasté Yoga Center in San Diego, CA. A teacher for over a decade, Karson works to bridge the gap between the ancient wisdom of yoga and the modern science of happiness through her yoga classes, workshops, and Happy-U’s Teacher Training program. Karson’s classes are inspired by what goes on in the modern-day life of a joy-seeker, using the power of music, laughter, and storytelling to take her students on a journey within.