The holidays, a time filled with seasonal cheer, can also bring in a slew of distractions that keep you away from your practice. One way to encourage focus, commitment, and an overall sense of ease is to create an altar in your home.
While many studios have elaborately set up shrines complete with gold embellished Ganeshas and fire blazing Shivas, an at-home altar can be as simple as gathering a few objects, and placing them into your space with intention. The intrinsic DIY nature of creating an alter makes it possible to build a different daily one to support a specific mindset and purpose.
After listening to YogaCity NYC’s Deeper Learning Series panel discussion on yoga and rituals, YogaCity NYC's Elysha Lenkin asked Swami Asokananda, Director of the Integral Yoga Institute, author and teach Elena Brower and Michael Bühler-Rose, a photographer, professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, and a Bhakti yogi, specifically how and why they set up their alters.
Elysha Lenkin: What is the purpose of an altar?
Swami Asokananda: For me, the altar is the place where I build up powerful spiritual vibrations. I come to the altar with my higher aspirations and over time it has accumulated a pure, uplifting energy. My observation is that if one takes care of their altar, the altar will take care of you. I believe that you will find that when your spirits are down and your mind is in a funk, just sitting by your altar, not even trying to do anything spiritual, you will find your mood changing for the better.
Elena Brower: I have several all over my home – just ways to bring my attention to the present, to someone who needs healing, to a specific intention I'm holding.
Michael Bühler-Rose: The purpose of my altar is to formerly focus on my connection with the divine in a multi-sensual situation. The altar is set up as the center of my household, so that each morning my life is centered around the maintenance of the images on the altar, and everything throughout the day is connected to that service.
EL: What items currently sit on your altar?
MBR: On mine, I have a picture of my teacher and his teachers. I also have a deity of Krishna.
SA: I am currently traveling in India, but I brought a mini, portable altar with me. It has the picture of my Guru, Sri Swami Satchidananda, his Guru, Sri Swami Sivananda, and the Integral Yoga yantra.
When I return to New York, my altar has a larger size of the same pictures, plus an oil lamp. As I sit in front of the altar, I feel I am receiving the blessings of the teachers of my lineage, the Shakti (power) embodied in the yantra, and the flame draws me into the Light within me.
EB: Currently I have altars for my Mom, my sister and me, my man, my son, my students, my teachers.
EL: Do the pieces on your altar ever change?
EB: All the time. When things need more momentum or attention, I might adjust the objects or the placements.
MBR: Generally the images on my altar stay the same. If there is an addition it would be one that becomes permanent. It is recommended to keep your altar somewhat static as that allows for a dynamic relationship with the object of adoration and love to flourish in a natural way.
SA: For over 40 years, the items on my altar haven’t changed. I found my path at a young age, and have remained committed to my lineage, so I haven’t found any interest in changing my altar. I like to keep my path simple and focused. But certainly people are free to make changes in what they place on their altar as their consciousness evolves and their path unfolds.
EL: Explain the ritual connected to your altar. Is it similar to a puja ceremony?
SA: I mostly sit at my altar to meditate. I do not feel that the pictures on the altar are pictures—they are the living presence of the Gurus of my lineage. They support me in going out of my mind and into my Self. Another way that I sometimes use my altar—I don’t know if you’d call it a ritual—is to sit there quietly when my mind is facing some dilemma. Invariably, I will get some good insight into how to proceed. A puja can be as elaborate or as simple as you would like--whatever actions awaken our living connection to the Deity constitutes a puja. So, yes, I would say the time I spend at the altar is a puja. I open with Sanskrit chants to invoke my receptivity to the Divine presence, followed by pranayama, a period for silent meditation, closing prayers for the welfare of those in need and peace in the world, ending with an arati (a waving of the light). I would call what I do at the altar a zen-like puja; simple, yet encompassing the essence.
EB: No specific rituals - I let the moment guide me. To me, an altar is a puja as much as the ceremony itself is puja.
MBR: Having an altar is all about connecting to a culture of respect. Every part of the day is connected to the altar--there shouldn't be a distinction between ritual life and the rest of the life. The ritual sets parameters and a focal point for the day and all of the other activities are interconnected to support that goal of coming closer to God. Ritual and your altar's focal point are meant to be interwoven into your entire life. Puja just means to worship; having an altar infers that one will perform some sort of worship or respects to the images on the altar.
EL: What would you tell someone about setting up their own altar?
SA: Place anything on the altar that inspires you, opens your heart, elevates your vibration, and/or directs you toward the core of your Being. Your sacred objects can be placed at eye level. Keep your altar clean. Have faith that this is a place where you can express and relieve all your burdens.
EB: Trust your intuition to tell you what's important.
MBR: In order to understand how to set up an altar the practitioner needs to figure out what the goal of having their altar is. Is it to create a deep relationship with an aspect of the Divine? Is there a specific form of process that they are connecting through? What is the specific relationship and desire in how they want that relationship to manifest?
For me I am interested in cultivating a deep and loving relationship with Krishna. That process is called Bhakti, so I approach setting up my altar in that mood. Thus I have an image of Krishna, I respect the images of my teachers who have taught me this particular process and connected me to the Lord through that process and then I have an image of Krishna to whom I finally offer respects to through different mantras and rituals.
EL: What about New Yorkers with tiny apartments? Where do they place their altars?
MBR: Vastu and the Agamas describe many rules on how to set up an altar, the main point is setting it in a clean area. It is always best if you can set up an altar in a space that is specifically reserved for the altar so you can go there just to do your worship and meditation.
SA: Traditionally, the scriptures recommend that the meditator faces north or east—I believe it has to do with the magnetism of the earth. I’m a bit directionally-challenged, and haven’t made this a big factor in my altar placement. I live in a tiny room at our New York IYI ashram that is both my bedroom and office. Still, I keep a small space for God to sit and watch over me. I feel that if you still your mind, and slowly turn your gaze perusing your apartment, you will be guided to the spot where the Divine can most powerfully reside.
We thank Elena Brower for generously letting us see her alters for this story. Happy Holidays Everybody!