- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

James Tennant starts the day with a prayer in his inner sanctum — a former bedroom turned meditation retreat with altars in four directions, serene gray walls and postcards of spiritually inspiring sorts including Jesus, rapper Tupac Shakur and the Hindu god Shiva.

Then, the 32-year-old Chicago man rises and faces east for a series of sun salutations and other yoga poses that stretch his spine (and soul) before he sits down for 20 minutes of chi-centering pranayama, or focused breathing.

It’s a great antidote for stressors of new-millennium living.

“I feel much more directed,” Mr. Tennant says. “I can allow the day to unfold and take on tasks as they come.”

Mr. Tennant’s “altared space” is part of a small wave of reverence rooms increasingly occupying American homes.

Back in 1998, when author and architect Sarah Susanka first proposed writing about such sacred spaces, her publishers were “extremely leery” about it, says Miss Susanka, of Raleigh, N.C. Not so anymore.

This cultural drift toward making room — literally — for spirituality seems to have accelerated since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Ian Robinson, a Chicago real estate agent with a yoga room off his bedroom, says since the terrorist attacks, families are increasingly treating their homes like private retreats.

“It’s not necessarily that people are scared,” he says. “I think their families and homes have become more important to them.”

Reinterpreting the rec room

In their quest for soulful living, many Americans are re-examining and reinventing spaces in their homes. Is it an attic or a den of tranquillity? A closet or an altar? A rec room or a prayer room?

Tim Hanley started reconsidering sacred spaces — where they’re located and how they’re used — after visiting a church inside a Boston mall.

“This was in a common place,” the Traverse City, Mich., eye doctor says. “It used to be that towns were small and churches were close at hand. Now, churches aren’t where the people are. People don’t have time to get to those spaces. We need to think closer to our routines.”

So, Dr. Hanley did just that. He started thinking: What’s closer to our daily routines than home? Than work? Soon, Dr. Hanley built an 8-by-10-foot hexagonal Catholic-oriented chapel inside his practice, where any of his 40 employees can go to leave memorial cards, pray and have a one-on-one with divinity. Dr. Hanley also refurbished the basement of his Victorian-era home to create a serene prayer and yoga room.

“It helps focus,” he says. “It’s so easy to get engaged in all the details that overtake us that you don’t take the time to stop and reflect, to stop and pray. For me, what a meditation room is, is to help discern what it is you need to be doing and make sure that that’s incorporated into your life.”

Miss Susanka has designed rooms for clients that range from a master bedroom closet with a meditation cushion on the floor to a ladder-accessible attic space that’s just 5 feet tall, where the residents sit for meditation. Her own sacred spaces have included an above-garage room lined with bookshelves, with a meditation cushion, comfortable chair and collected treasures such as seashells, orchids and a framed picture of her first college assignment.

Meditation, prayer and yoga aren’t the only activities in sacred spaces. Some work on hobbies there — calligraphy, poetry, painting.

Miss Susanka writes in her room.

“It almost feels like my creative heart,” she says.

Though many suggest keeping sacred spaces out of the home’s high-traffic areas, San Diego spiritual coach Kamala Devi turned the heart of her home — the living room — into her prayer room. There’s no TV. No couch. No shoes allowed. An elaborate antique altar dominates the room, festooned with Buddhist, Japanese and Catholic beads and surrounded by royal green, red and brown floor pillows.

“It’s so powerful for me because it transcends different faiths,” Miss Devi says. “They’re all symbols, and they only have the meanings you imbue in them. But if you’re consciously selecting them, you’re awaking that energy.”

Though yoga practitioners are taught that their true spiritual life is within, outward manifestations of belief can create order, peace and communion. Sitting down, lighting a candle and focusing your thoughts can energize your day.

Simple rituals “take you out of the daily routines — their associations, their habits, their patterns,” Miss Devi says. “They seduce us into unconsciousness so easily. When you step out of that into the sacred, it’s like stepping into more of who you really are.”

Jennifer Stanley’s meditation room, like Miss Devi’s, began with a small altar. The District health researcher placed a small flower vase, two oil lamps and incense on a bedside table about 10 years ago. No particular objects are essential, but seeing a candle “brings you into that moment,” she says.

“It’s like a trigger,” she says. “You arrive. We spend so much of our day in the car, at work, and we’re not there — our mind’s racing. You set up a vase, and it says, ‘You’re here.’ The purpose in that space and in that moment is to be mindful and to be at home in your own self.”

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