Creating a sacred space, whether at home or in a yoga studio, can bring in various forms of energy and cultivate desired qualities. For the purposes of this article, ‘sacred space’, ‘puja’, and ‘altar’ are used interchangably, all referring to a sacred and intentional space dedicated to something or someone. My hope is that the information provided here will help set a foundation for creating a sacred space or to enhance or inspire currently existing spaces. Everyone has a different aesthetic and should be respected as such, so the guidelines within may not be to everyone’s liking. Take what you like and and make it yours!
Everything in the universe has prana, a life force. Sacred spaces are a way to harness or cultivate this prana, and evoke certain qualities. You do not have to subscribe to any religion to create an altar. We create sacred spaces all of the time, whether we are aware of it or not. An arrangement of framed family photos could be considered an altar, since it is a space dedicated to a group of people. At it’s most basic level, an altar is a space that was created with a lot of thought and care. An altar does not have to include deities, religious symbols, ties to occultism, etc. Understandably, a religious display in a public space, such as a yoga studio, may turn some people off. When creating a sacred space, think of your audience first. If you are unsure of how they may receive your creation, turn to nature- Most people can appreciate natural objects like flowers, fruits, pinecones, and rocks.
Above anything else, make the entire puja space intentional, as this will determine the energy that the altar gives off. A sacred space that is carefully crafted has a lot more prana (life force) than one that was clumsily thrown together. As you become more experienced with creating a sacred space, the process will become intuitive and meditative.
Begin by deciding how large you want the puja to be. A few objects carefully placed in a corner can evoke a strong response, just as taking up an entire wall or room could do the same. Will the altar be within a defined space, like on a tray or a scarf, or free formed? How tight or loose will you arrange the objects?
Once you have a loose idea of the size that you want to commit to, choose something or someone to dedicate the space to. Spaces can be dedicated to anything: emotions, chakras, deities, teachers, pets, childhood, etc. By choosing a dedication, you create parameters for your space and the creation can fall into place. For example, an altar that is dedicated to the muladhara (root) chakra may feature red as a prominent color, root balls or sticks and branches, a scale or something that symbolizes ‘balance’, a chunk of hematite or obsidian, and an image of the Hindu god Ganesh (who rules that chakra). Similarly, you could dedicate a space to the concept of ‘peace’ by using a lot of white, lavender sprigs, aventurine or blue chalcedony stones, maybe having framed images of Gandhi or Buddha, and even arranging the objects into a peace sign. I encourage you to create a list of as many themes that you can think of, that way you can choose one when you’re ready to start creating.
When deciding on materials for your puja, try to choose items that have the most prana. In ayurveda, a food is most nourishing and has the most prana when it is at its freshest or greenest. Consider using plants that are living, not clipped or plucked, so that you may nourish them, help them thrive and create the most prana in your space. Prana can also be found in objects- Something made of plastic, for example, has a different quality of energy than something made of brass or carved from stone. There is a different feeling of the “sacred” in something that was carved or cast. Think about these aspects when selecting your altar objects and trust your intuition.
Again, be mindful when choosing how to arrange a puja. To make a space intentional, try incorporating sacred symbols, numbers, and objects. By considering more than one aspect of the altar, the sacred space becomes multilayered, more meaningful, and contains more prana.
You can also use symbols when creating a puja. Circles are sacred symbols in many traditions, often symbolizing the infinite or the universe. Triangles are a symbol of stability or, in art history traditions, femininity, as the pubis resembles the same shape as the triangle. More specific shapes like hands can represent helping others or creativity, while eyes can represent intuition or connection with your higher self. You can even create your own symbols by bringing meaning to your choices- two parallel lines could represent stability or strength.
Some numbers are powerful symbols, too. The number 108 is revered in both Hinduism and Buddhism, though for different reasons, as being sacred. There are 108 beads on a mala, for example. The number 3 is a holy number referring to a trinity in almost all religions. The number 8 is auscpicious, too, because it is the same as the infinity symbol, the symbol of the universe. Numbers can be used in an altar in many ways. It could be as simple as placing a mala (108) or triangle (3) in the space. It could be as complex as having 108 pebbles arranged in the shape of the number eight.
Colors can also be really powerful tool. So powerful, in fact, that there’s an entire science called color theory dedicated to colors and how they make us feel. Warm colors like reds, yellows, oranges make us feel hot emotions like happy, angry, creative. Cool colors like greens, blues, purples make us feel cool emotions like calm or sadness. Each color associated with the chakras can be used as a gateway to incorporating colors in your sacred space. You may also consider selecting a color palette of two or three colors to stick with, or go full spectrum and use the entire rainbow.
Try to incorporate as many elements pertaining to the senses as you can into your puja, making it more multilayered. Perhaps incorporate the sense of smell through candles, incense, or essential oils. If your puja is public, you may want to avoid synthetic smells, opting for natural plant oil-based ones instead. Higher quality incense and candles tend to have more agreeable smells to most people. Nag champa incense is a type that most people can stomach. Opt for soy-based candles, which are healthier and cleaner to inhale than parrafin. Many soy candles are made with essential oils, too. Essential oils are plant derivatives that are concentrated into a carrier oil. They are prized for their aromatherapeutic effects and assistance with different ailments. An essential oil diffuser is a small device that uses water to disseminate the essential oil into the air. There are many different essential oils, but the most common are lavender, which has a calming effect, eucalyptus, which helps the respiratory tract, and peppermint, which helps with focus.
As mentioned previously, go to nature. Find leaves, pinecones, rocks, or anything that catches your eye to bring your space to the next level. Crystals are a very popular element of sacred spaces. Like essential oils, crystals also help with ailment or with bringing in desired qualities, and they are also linked to the chakras. Amethyst, for example, is a purple stone, and is used for the third eye and crown chakras. It cultivates divine connection, and is known as a strong stone for fertility.
The internet will be one of your best resources when creating a sacred space. Don’t be afraid to Google symbols, crystal meanings, samples of other altars, etc. Maybe start a Pinterest board with puja inspiration. Pinterest is also a good resource for color palettes. There are an infinite number of books that may help, such as The Book of Symbols, The Crystal Bible, and Chakra Meditation. Most of these books are available through the library, as well. There are also new age, or metaphysical, stores all over the world that sell a variety of sacred objects that could be used for your altar. Many of these stores also sell crystals, essential oils, and incense. There are also a vast number of online stores that sell these resources. I highly recommend Young Living essential oils, as they are the highest quality that I have seen on the market. Even just going on a hike can lend itself to your sacred space, as you may find some pieces of nature that you want to use in your puja. If you find yourself interested in color theory, many sites like Coursera offer free college courses in the subject. Whatever it is that you’re interested in or passionate about, take it and run with it! As you gain more experience building a sacred space, these guidelines may melt away. Connect with your intuition and let it guide you, as it is the best teacher!