Altars are places of worship—centers for yoga or meditation that infuse the space around them with the energy of your practice. Think of an altar as a physical manifestation of your inner spiritual landscape. Artfully laden with images and objects that remind you of your own best self, an altar gives you the opportunity to consciously reflect on things you might otherwise take for granted. It's a place of solace and repose that becomes a receptacle for your spiritual energy. And when you sit before it, that energy is reflected back to you.
Whether you're meditating, practicing asana before your altar, or simply pausing for a moment as you walk by, a personal altar can be a beautiful way to reconnect with your deepest intentions for your practice and your life. Whatever you choose to place on it, says kirtan musician Sean Johnson, "an altar is a mirror of the heart, a reflection of the energies and attributes and love that you carry inside."
Elena Brower: A Place for Healing
Elena Brower, yoga teacher and the founder of Virayoga, remembers the first time she saw a home altar at a friend's house. The altar included a photo of Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. Brower felt an instant connection when she saw the guru's portrait, which she says eventually led her to begin her yoga studies at the Siddha Yoga ashram in upstate New York.
When Brower moved earlier this year, one of the first things she did in her new home was set up an altar space. It was simple: a book placed on her desk, open to "a potent passage I wanted to remember." As she settled in, Brower assembled temporary altars all over the house—in the bathroom, on a dresser, in a corner where she could practice yoga between unpacking boxes. The objects on them change depending on her mood or whatever intention she's made for herself that day. "I have altars all over the house—some where I practice and meditate, some where I walk by a lot and want to be reminded of a person or a moment. It's a way to connect," she says. "I'll sit there to take a rest from the world and just be."
On Elena Brower's Altar
Words of Wisdom: I like to pick a mantra or an inspiring quote like, "Teachers can open the door, but you must enter yourself."
Family Photos: It's very affirming to see this image of my mom and me when I meditate and listen to my heart.
Deities: Quan Yin is the goddess of compassion. Since placing her here I have felt a palpable shift toward more compassion for myself.
Malas: The white one is made of lotus seeds, which represent new beginnings.
Sean Johnson: Heart Center
Every morning, Sean Johnson, yoga teacher and the founder of Sean Johnson and the Wild Lotus Band, sits in front of his altar to sing, meditate, and recenter himself. Johnson created the altar inside of a sealed brick fireplace in the living room of the New Orleans home he shares with his partner, Farah. The altar's location, Johnson says, is as symbolic as the objects he has placed there. "Like a fireplace, the altar is a hearth to me," he says. "It's where I go to kindle my soul and my connection to what is meaningful and inspiring."
Johnson's altar contains images of deities who represent qualities in himself that he wants to connect with. "I have
a big-belly Buddha to remind me that there is always joy and sweetness behind the pain," he says. "I chant to Saraswati, the goddess of the arts, as a source of inspiration.
And though it's not a deity per se, I always have an image
of a lotus flower to remind me that even when we are moving through dark times, something beautiful will rise up that would never have been created without the challenge."
On Sean Johnson's Altar
Mirror: To always remind me that my altar is a reflection of that which is already inside.
Yes Card: This was given to me by my parents. It was cut out from the cover of their wedding invitation. It reminds me to say "yes" to life again and again.
Childhood Photos: They remind me to stay playful and to cherish my mom and dad.
Deities: Hanuman reminds me to be a good friend and a servant of love. Shiva reminds me to dance with the mysteries of life instead of resisting or being paralyzed by the unexpected.
Mardi Gras Beads: I have them alongside traditional mala beads to symbolize my connection to New Orleans and remind me to keep life festive and joyful.
MC Yogi: Sacred Energy
When he's home in Northern California, yoga teacher and musician MC Yogi (aka Nicholas Giacomini) spends mornings in a quiet room in front of his largest altar, where he meditates for 10 to 30 minutes. "It sets the mind for the day. It's just a corner of the house, but the air's a little different there," he says. Known for his lyrical raps about Hindu deities, love, and devotion, MC Yogi describes his home as filled with dozens of reminders of worship in the form of altars containing meaningful images and objects: souvenirs of his travels in India and Europe; portraits of saints and deities; paintings by his wife, Amanda Giacomini; a photo of his rescue dog, Mo.
In India, he says, there is a traditional belief that objects hold the love that is bestowed upon them. "There's a mountain we visited in India that's been worshipped for thousands of years. It's no different than any other mountain, but because humans have been devoted to it in an unbroken stream, it glows with power and energy," he says. "Altars are like that, too. It's a way to express love and devotion, but essentially, it's a reflection of what's going on inside you."
On MC Yogi's Altar
Lights: They're symbolic of an offering of my energy and love. When you shine light on something, you shed love on it.
Inspirational Portraits: When I see the picture of Gandhi, it triggers something in me, and I'm reminded to drop in and have an experience of yoga.
Fresh Flowers: They're an offering of love to love, beauty to beauty.
Photographs of Loved Ones: My friend Reggie's foster mom gave his picture to me and asked me to pray for him after he was sent to a juvenile detention center.
Set up a sacred space that inspires your practice.
Set an Intention: Close your eyes and think about your intention for creating an altar. Maybe it's to inspire you creatively, or to express gratitude. It could be for somebody (including yourself) who needs healing or for someone you're having a hard time with. The most common reason is simply to create a sacred space that reflects back the energy of your yoga and meditation practice. "The first thing that pops into your head is the right one," Brower says.
Find Space: Next, choose a place for your altar, ideally somewhere quiet and private. It could just be a corner of your dresser—what imbues an altar with its energy is the spirit you bring to it. Once you choose a spot, consider placing your mat or a pillow in front of it. This delineates the space, setting the altar ever so gently apart from everything else, suggests Brower.
Collect: Place objects on your altar that have special significance or meaning for you.They can be photographs, flowers, images of deities, and even sweets (in the Hindu tradition, food or prasad is offered to the deity as an act of devotion before prayer). If you don't feel drawn to a particular deity or spiritual image, don't worry. There are no rules or must-have pieces for an altar. "What is most important is that you choose something you can direct your own devotion toward," Johnson says.
Change It Up: Your intention may evolve from day to day or week to week, and your altar can, too. Swap out pictures, replace dried flowers with fresh ones, and continue to add pieces as they come into your life and speak to you.