Before Reniera Wolff renovated her kitchen, it was a classic New York kitchen—narrow and dark. "I love to cook," explains Wolff, a television production accountant, "but the kitchen was completely uninspiring. It was not a room I liked to spend much time in." The changes that Wolff wanted to make were more than merely aesthetic. "The kitchen is one of the most important rooms in a home," she says, "and I wanted to feel more comfortable in mine."
When she began her remodeling, she had carpenters remove the northern kitchen wall and replace it with a wood countertop made from milled beams finished in rich gold tones. This allowed the northern light from the living room to pour into the kitchen. Wolff also replaced the unattractive laminated cabinetry against the south wall with wood cabinets stained a forest green and added a wooden countertop. Finally, she kept the center of her kitchen empty. Says Wolff, "Now my kitchen is open, comfortable, and pleasing to the eye. It's a room that inspires me to cook."
What transformed Wolff's kitchen and her relationship to it is Vastu, the ancient Hindu tradition of designing living spaces. First recorded in the Vedas, the ancient texts upon which Hinduism is based, Vastu is the precursor to Feng Shui and a sister discipline to both Ayurveda and yoga. Just as Ayurveda and yoga create harmony in the body and mind, Vastu creates harmony in the home.
The basic principle of Vastu, according to Juliet Pegrum, the author of The Vastu Home: Harmonize Your Living Space with the "Indian Feng Shui", is to ensure that energy, or prana, can flow freely throughout the home. "The first and simplest principle is to make sure that our rooms are free from excess clutter, which can impede the pranic flow. The second is to achieve the correct balance of the elements, and the third one is to maximize the amount of light that is flowing throughout the home."
Another important Vastu principle is to honor the "sacred center" of each room by keeping it clear, which also allows the energy of a room to move freely. All this talk of "energy" might seem vague or dubious, but Pegrum states it is not. "The ancient rishis recommended that we should design and orient our homes to maximize our exposure to natural sunlight...[and] that different types of rooms or areas within our homes should be determined according to the direction of sunlight at particular times of day. This helps to maintain the natural, diurnal rhythms of our bodies and minds, which fluctuate according to the movement of the Earth around the sun."
Claiming Your Space
According to vedic scriptures, the entire physical universe is composed of the five basic elements: earth, water, fire, air, and ether (space). A room feels in harmony when these elements are in proper balance. In Vastu every room is divided into four quadrants, and each is ruled by an element: Earth in the southwest, Fire in the southeast, Air and Water in the northwest, and Ether in the northeast. Each element is "condensed energy vibrating at a specific frequency," says Pegrum, with Earth being the heaviest and Ether the lightest. What all this means, says Pegrum, is that rooms should be set up with the balance of these elements in mind.
This was just how Wolff approached the changes in her kitchen, with the help of Vastu expert Kathleen Cox, author of The Power of Vastu Living: Welcoming Your Soul Into Your Home and Workplace. The cabinets and counters Wolff installed in her kitchen against the south wall followed the Vastu rule of honoring the heaviness of earth. The center of her kitchen remained empty, protecting the creative energy that radiates from Vastu's sacred center. The stove and oven were placed as close as possible to the southeast, honoring the element of Fire.
Along with these changes, Wolff also created in the northeast corner of her new kitchen what Cox calls a "zone of tranquility." On a countertop she placed a photograph of her daughter, along with other photographs and art from her native South Africa.This zone of tranquility, placed in the quadrant ruled by Ether and devoted to contemplative activities, also brought into her kitchen two other basic Vastu principles: that it is essential for us to acknowledge our interconnection with the natural world and that we respect our true nature and manifest it in our home.
In bringing a natural material such as wood into her kitchen and in personalizing the space by paying homage to her native South African roots, as well as her family life, Wolff brought her authentic self into the room. As a result, she says, "I feel comfort in this room because I feel connected to what I love."
And what could be better than feeling comfortable and at ease in the kitchen, which is the center of nourishment in a home? "These changes made me want to cook more," says Wolff. And even though her kitchen is approximately the same size it was before it was renovated, Wolff says that now "it's a room I want to be in."
Beyond the Living Room
"Vastu is not all or nothing," explains Cox. Even if you are not able to change your kitchen according to all of Vastu's principles, you can reflect some or one of them: "Vastu is not about creating the perfect space; it's about creating a better, more livable one."
Mariah Martin, a public relations consultant in Ridgefield, Connecticut, made only one change in her kitchen, however it completely altered her relationship to it. In the northeast corner, in place of the plastic dog food bowls and bags that had stood there for years, she placed a small wooden table and covered it with plants, three small Buddhas, and a black Chinese bowl. On the wall behind the table, she hung an Asian scroll, brass camel bells, and a framed poem by Goethe.
Before she made this change, Martin says the room lacked focus and felt cold. "I was easily distracted and did not enjoy cooking." However in building her zone of tranquility and by bringing herself into the room with items that have personal meaning, "The room was anchored," says Martin. "The kitchen felt calmer, and I felt much more comfortable. Although I'd been living in my house for 15 years, I felt I finally inhabited the space, that I had moved in, and it was my own. It was so simple, but it was a revelation."
"A lot of people do not accept the space they are in, so they never claim the space as their own," Cox carefully explains. "You have a tiny kitchen or a dark kitchen, and you may hate it. But that's no excuse, because it's still yours. So claim it. Find a way to make your kitchen appealing. Once you claim it, you are no longer in transition. You're no longer dreaming of the kitchen you want to have or could have but honoring the one you do have."
The point of Vastu, says Cox, goes way beyond the room itself. "All your living space should reflect your true self. This way, instead of hearing the mental clutter you drag around from room to room, you can hear your own inner voice. Once you do that you can truly concentrate on your spiritual journey."
Dayna Macy is Yoga Journal's Communications Director. She lives with her family in Berkeley, California.