…that is the question.’
Or rather, do you need an altar to be a good Yogi, or not?
I’ve seen many an altar in my day, some of them all gold and sparkly, like the ones at the Samye Ling Buddhist Monestary in Scotland.
Whilst others were more modest, down to earth and homely, like in the meditation cabins at Vajrapani Institute in California.
But I’ve never had an altar of my own, partly because I’ve never had anywhere to put one, but mostly because I couldn’t see the point?
My path to yoga came via Buddhism, most of which was self taught, and though I visited the London Buddhist Vihara in Chiswick a few times, I never took part in any of their ceremonies or pujas. I’m not a big believer in ritual for ritual’s sake, preferring to concentrate on my own personal experience and inner growth.
It was only once I started studying with the Sivananda Organisation in London that I gained some experience in such things, and from that started to see some value in them.
Having an altar, or shrine, can be useful in that it gives you a focal point, somewhere physical you can concentrate your mental efforts. You place there items of significance, and pictures of your gurus, and they can help remind you of what you are trying to achieve and how best to go about it.
You shouldn’t blindly prostrate yourself before the altar because that’s what you’ve been told to do, Buddha was dead set against that sort of thing, but if it can help you further along your spiritual path then why not?
And that’s the thing you see, only you can say if having a shrine or altar will make you a better Yogi or not, because only you know if it will be an aid to you in your studies, or a hindrance?
And the same goes for having a guru:
“If, though, by the conjunction of conditions, someone understands what the Buddha meant, that person doesn’t need a teacher. Such a person has a natural awareness superior to anything taught. But unless you’re so blessed, study hard, and by means of instruction you’ll understand.”
Or in other words, if you think you need a Guru, get a Guru. And if you think you need a shrine, have a shrine.
When I moved into the last place I was staying I decided I’d like to have a wee altar to help concentrate my spiritual efforts. There was an old fireplace that seemed to be the perfect place for something like that, so I just picked up some bits and pieces from the local shops (vase, candle holders, etc.), bought an incense burner and some postcards of the swamis, wrapped a cardboard box in wrapping paper, et voila! One altar.
Y’see, these things don’t have to be all fancy. As long as you like them, and they have meaning for you, that’s all that matters.
And you can’t be too precious about these things either. I had to move house a few weeks ago, and so when my circumstances changed, so did my altar.
Not as nice as the one I had before maybe, but so what if it’s just a wee bit of space on a shelf? It’s a bit of space set aside in my life for spiritual pursuits; a reminder for me to do my sadhana, to keep in mind the values of my teachers, and to remember what I am trying to achieve and how best to go about it.
And if it can do all that, then it’s done it’s job admirably, and no mistake; which at the end of the day is all that matters really, isn’t it?