Feng Shui, Indian-Style

What yoga is for the body, vastu is for the place you live

| September/October 2002

Reminiscing about his ancestral home in south India where he spent several years of his childhood, Nitin Madhav recalls the tranquility that filled the house his great-grandfather built. So it's not surprising that he furnished his Washington, D.C., townhouse with Indian antiques. What he didn't know until recently, however, is that his great-grandfather's home was built according to the principles of vastu, or vaastu, the ancient Hindu science of harmonious design. As it happened, the townhouse-which he bought because it felt 'right' and then redecorated in ways that simply made sense to him-fits well with vastu practice. For instance, he placed a lily pond northeast of his front door, exactly the place that would be prescribed by a vastu consultant.

Vastu is a 4,000-year-old spiritual philosophy, which may have been the precursor to the Chinese tradition of feng shui. It aims to create positive living and working environments by harmonizing a building according to spiritual principles and natural laws. The tradition is based on the idea that when energy flows smoothly through a space, it feels serene and balanced-becoming a place you love to be.

Though vastu is far less well known in the United States than is feng shui, at least four books on the subject have been published recently, with more in the works. Consultants, architects, and builders trained in vastu are now spreading the word about this age-old art.

'Vastu helps you create environments that are calming and centered,' explains Kathleen Cox, author of The Power of Vastu Living: Welcoming Your Soul into Your Home and Workplace (Fireside, 2002). 'Vastu is an extension of yoga, meditation, ayurveda [Indian medicine], raga [music], and Indian classical dance-which are all about balance and perfect harmony.' Relying on the ancient spiritual idea that all things and beings are interconnected, vastu aligns a dwelling in accordance with the sun's energy, Earth's magnetic fields, and other planets' movements (some of vastu is based onastrology), so that the structure becomes a symbolic microcosm of the universe. 'The objective of vastu,' Cox says, 'is to build man-made creations that mirror the perfection of the universe.'

But such a lofty goal needn't discourage people who are simply seeking an apartment or house that feels more like home. 'Vastu isn't an all-or-nothing or even a one-size-fits-all science,' says Cox, who has studied the ancient vastu shastras-texts and manuals-and apprenticed with an Indian vastu master. 'The only structure that's perfect is a Hindu temple, which is built for the deities according to the principles of vastu. If you achieve more than 50 percent compliance in your home, you'll feel a positive influence in your life.'

Before you try vastu, Cox suggests that you observe how different spaces affect you. Do you feel different, for instance, in a subway car than in a similarly small but cozy room? 'First, you need to accept that space has power over you and can determine how you feel,' she says. That realization can inspire you to improve your surroundings.

The tranquility VASTU seeks is rooted in an ancient Hindu tale about the God Brahma creating a giant humanoid who threatened to devour the world. As recounted in Rohit Arya's book Vaastu: The Indian Art of Placement (Destiny, 2000), the lesser gods complained about this monster to Brahma, who finally assembled the guardians of the eight directions (south, southeast, etc.) to tackle the monster. Once the monster was pinned face down on the earth, Brahma jumped onto his midsection, and the eight gods of the directions also climbed atop the demon. But the monster complained that he was hungry and his punishment was unfair, so Brahma named him Vastu Purusha-'the cosmic spirit of the land or site'-and made him immortal as long as he stayed on the ground. From then on, anyone building a structure had to appease Vastu Purusha or risk misfortune.

A mandala used by vastu practitioners shows the demon spirit inside a square with his head to thenortheast and feet to the southwest. The square is usually divided into nine subsections, each representing one of the eight gods who sat on Purusha and Brahma in the center box. When this grid is laid over a floor plan of a home or office, it lines up the rooms with the compass directions. The nine sections of the vastu purusha mandala suggest the ideal activities for rooms in each of the directions. Each section of the dwelling is governed by a god who represents a particular quality or element: water to the northeast, fire to the southeast, and so on. Followers of vastu also chart prana, the cosmic energy flowing through a place. Juliet Pegrum, a textile and interior designer and author of The Vastu Vidya Handbook (Three Rivers Press, 2000), explains, 'East is the primary direction, since that's where the sun rises. North is the direction from which the magnetic pull of the earth comes. Because of these governing forces, prana meanders from the northeast toward the southwest.' Therefore, windows and open spaces in the northeast enhance the flow of prana through a space. Heavy furniture there can block natural harmony.

The living room of Tannia Goswami's eighth-floor Chicago apartment features floor-to-ceiling windows that offer splendid panoramas of Lake Michigan, yet during parties the room would be practically empty. 'When people came for dinner, they always congregated in the kitchen-and believe me, it's not because I am a good cook!' says Goswami. After a vastu consultation with Cox, Goswami learned that although the rooms were positioned perfectly, the furniture wasn't. 'The living room wasn't conducive to interaction,' Goswami says. With Cox's guidance, she moved the big things-her sofa, oversized armchair, and a large painting-into an L shape along the south and west walls, where they form a barrier to hold positive energy. 'Almost everyone who visits comments that my apartment 'flows' better now, even if they have no idea I worked with a vastu consultant,' she reports.

Another change in the living room: a tranquility zone in the northeast-the meditative direction. Goswami moved her stereo system (electronics are considered 'fire' and should not be in the northeast 'water' zone) and made the spot a peaceful place to recline by arranging a rug, lots of cushions, and some plants. 'When I'm debating something or feel stressed out, I gravitate to that spot to contemplate,' she says.

A tranquility zone can be an entire room or just a small corner. It may be a shrine containing meaningful items or photos, or a spot for meditation, yoga, or reflection. The best place for a tranquility zone is the northeast of a house or a room, since that's where prana enters; it's what Cox calls 'the gateway of the gods.'

The location and arrangement of bedrooms are another key lesson of vastu. Goswami also made improvements in her bedroom, which doubles as an office for her work as a business consultant. 'I was in the midst of changing jobs and trying to figure out what to do next,' she recalls. 'At the time, I was confused and scattered. Kathy Cox walked in, took out her compass, and asked if I had trouble focusing. As it turned out, I was sleeping in the wrong direction. Also, my desk faced the toilet in the attached bathroom-not a good omen. So I moved the bed to the other side of the room, and my desk now faces northeast'-the tranquility zone.

After these changes, Goswami reports, she sleeps better and her career transition, though risky, turned out to be a positive move. 'It's hard to quantify these vastu changes,' she says. 'You can feel the difference on an intuitive level, rather than in any hard and fast way. I think what happened is that I got more focused and more comfortable with my life decisions. My path is clearer to me now. I'm not implying causality, but there certainly was a correlation between the vastu and my new feeling ofclarity.'

In fact, people who rearrange their homes often feel a gradual and subtle contentment within the space, notes vastu consultant Juliet Pegrum. 'If you're dissatisfied with a part of your house, you'll probably find there's something dissatisfying within yourself,' she says. 'Reorganizing and restimulating your own mind is what usually brings results.'

Rearranging furniture and redoing décor is an important component of vastu, since few people are able or willing to relocate entire rooms no matter how poorly suited they may be situated for a certain use. Rethinking the furniture or changing color and lighting can help balance a room in terms of energy and flow.

It happens to everybody, says Cox, whose own bedroom posed major vastu challenges. Because she has a pitta (fire) constitution (vastu draws upon the related Indian tradition of ayurvedic medicine, which divides people into three temperaments: kapha, earth/water; vata, air; and pitta), Cox knew she should sleep anywhere but in the fiery southeast portion of her cramped Manhattan apartment. But that's where the bedroom is. A situation like this doesn't mean you have to move; rather, you can shift the energy in the room. Cox pacified the too-strong fire element with calming colors and furnishings. She chose watery greens and blues to symbolically douse the fire energy, and she incorporated many beloved natural items: dried flowers, plants, and an Indian jungle painting. She placed her bed in the southwest part of the room and sleeps with her head to the south. 'By overloading the room with things that soothe my pitta nature, I've turned this bedroom into a very calming space,' she says.

Making changes according to vastu can give a space a sense of meaning and tranquility that enhances body, mind, and spirit. Personalizing a living area brings out the essence of those who live there, enhancing the harmony between the space and the residents. 'Yoga, meditation, and vastu share the same objectives,' says Cox. 'They all increase your inner balance and raise you to a higher spiritual plane. Vastu is simply the outer envelope.'Freelance writer Laurel Kallenbach has a zone of tranquility on the northeast part of her desk. She lives in Boulder, Colorado, where the mountains are to the southwest-a lovely vastu alignment.

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