Setting an altar or sacred space in your home or place of worship is a beautiful practice that is celebrated around the world. Most cultures and spiritual traditions have their own versions of altar setting, and while the basic ceremony of setting up an altar is similar across the globe, altars themselves can be as varied and diverse as the people creating them. As a sacred space is reserved for reflection, contemplation, and connection to the divine, your spirit guides, ancestors, and other energetic messengers, the most important aspect of your altar is that its placement and aesthetics resonate uniquely with you.
While there are some key steps to setting up any altar, you should always feel free to customize yours in a way that is authentic to your own style, energy, and what specifically you want to use your altar for. Whether you are interested in honoring your ancestors, releasing stuck energy, setting intentions, performing an astrological ritual—like a full moon ritual or a solstice celebration—or simply using the space for quiet meditation and introspection, your altar will be most powerful if you personalize it to suit your style and vibe. Plus, it’s more fun to make it your own!
Setting up your altar can be an uncomplicated, enjoyable process—one that you can return to again and again as your practice grows and evolves. In general, an altar is simply a dedicated space for strengthening your intention setting and connecting to high-vibration energy, as well as supporting your ability to manifest your intentions. There is no wrong way to construct an altar, celebrate a ritual, or set an intention. You don’t have to perform regular rituals at your altar, and you definitely shouldn’t stress out about doing it perfectly. The only right way to set up your altar is the way that feels right to you. Follow wherever your energy guides and altar setting is sure to become a practice you love.
When I set up my own altar or help clients set theirs, I recommend an easy six-step process that can be replicated for any altar—including yours.
- Decide where and when to set up your altar.
In general, an altar is best set in a quiet, out-of-the-way space in your home, place of worship, or the outdoors, that will allow you to sit and reflect as desired. I have my main altar at my healing space (my “office” or “shrine”), which is a dedicated space where I do all my shamanic work. Because my shrine is a few minutes of drive away, I also have a smaller altar in my home for when I can pray and do my work from home.
An altar is a place to work with energy: releasing old energy, calling in new energy, transforming existing energy, connecting with ancient or ancestral energy. With that in mind, also consider when might be the best time for you to set up your altar. For example, if you are performing a ritual around the new moon or the full moon, setting your altar a few days prior can support you in clearing out old energy and preparing to welcome in new energy. If you are setting up your altar to connect with an ancestor or spirt guide, consider any dates or times that were significant to them—a date of birth or death, for example. But remember, there is no right or wrong time to set up or update your altar. You’ll enjoy the most benefit by following your inner wisdom and personalizing your method so it feels authentic to you.
- Cleanse the energy of your space.
Gather: One of the following of sage (or other cleansing herbs), incense, palo santo, sea salt, holy water, shamanic cleansing water, or another spiritual cleansing water.
Once you’ve decided where you’re going to set up your altar, it’s important to cleanse the energy of that space. If your altar is indoors, consider using cleansing smoke, or lightly spraying the area with any cleansing potion/water. If you’re outdoors, sprinkling sea salt in a circle around the space in which you’re going to set up your altar works great as well. I personally use smoke from herbs or incense for daily cleansing and a cleansing water I make with combination of distilled water, alcohol and essential oils for occasional deeper cleansing. I don’t like to use salt indoors, because I don’t like having to vacuum after using salt.
- Set up your altar.
Gather: At least one each of the items that represent different elements of Universe: Fire, Water, Earth, and Air. Plus at least one item that represents Spirit/Divine/Magic. At my own altar, I have a few crystals (earth), incense (air), handmade Tibetan bell (air), Candles (fire), and a clear water in white ceramic bowl (water).
For the fifth element of Spirit/Divine/Magic, you can use any of the following: prayer beads like mala beads and rosary, a statue/picture of deity or goddess, ancestral heirloom or symbols, tarot or oracle cards, etc. At my own altar, I have calligraphed names of all my shamanic deities, a beautiful marble statue of Kuan Yin from my trip to Vietnam, a handmade statue of Goddess Mago/Gaia that I made myself, and prayer beads from a Buddhist temple at my paternal ancestral city of Gyeongju.
This is where personalization really comes into play: In choosing the items you’re going to set on your altar. As you consider the items you’ve selected for your altar, each should coordinate with one of the directions and elements. Each item needs a home on the surface of your altar, and each element should house an item that represents it. Trust your intuition and aesthetic taste to arrange them on your altar.
If you decide to use a tarot card or an oracle card on your altar, you could consider selecting a card that represents the intention you’re bringing to your practice. Or you can completely give way to intuition and pull a card blindly. I sometimes pull cards before I start my meditation/prayer at my altar or choose cards that reflect the intention I want to hold for my prayer or ritual. You can do both.
- Take a few moments for meditation or contemplation.
Once you’ve set your altar and the space feels good, it’s time to practice some form of contemplation: Intention setting, meditation, energetic release, prayer. If silent contemplation doesn’t feel quite right to you, consider journaling or intuitively writing about the intention you have for your altar. If you’re practicing a ritual around releasing old energy and welcoming in new, allow yourself to take a few minutes to journal about the things you want to let go of and things you want to call in. If you discover something that resonates with you—an intention, an intuitive message, a quote or prayer— consider writing that down on a separate sheet of paper and including it in your altar ritual as well. (If you’re working on an energetic release, you’ll get to enjoy burning this paper shortly.)
Some examples of energy to let go of include:
Judging oneself and others.
Financial stress or strain.
Self-doubt or limiting beliefs.
Anger towards oneself and others.
Any practice, habit, feeling, or belief that is no longer serving you.
Examples of energy to invite include:
Acceptance towards oneself and others.
Opening to an abundance mindset.
Trusting oneself and one’s intuition.
Compassion towards oneself and others.
Any practice, habit, feeling, or belief that will serve you and your highest vibration.
- Perform your ritual: Intention setting, energetic release, calling on guides or ancestors, etc.
Once you’ve had some time for contemplation and have a clear intention to serve as the focus of your spiritual practice, it’s time to work with that intention. If you’ve set an intention to release stuck or low-vibration energy, ritualistically release what you want to let go of. (This is where you get to light your paper on fire.) Consider lighting your paper inside a small cauldron or oyster shell, on a metal plate, or outside where you’re not at risk of burning anything other than your paper.
If your intention is centered around calling in new energy, consider placing your written intention on your altar, in whichever space feels right to you. There are many resources of different rituals and divination practices that are suggested for various purpose – feel free to research them and find what resonates with you. Be sure to modify it and make it your own practice.
Personally, my rituals usually include offerings and prayer. Food offerings are common and are carefully selected and prepared for the ritual (never something that’s been sitting in my fridge or pantry). Sometimes my ancestors and/or deities ask for specific items added to the offering at the altar – flowers, cash, clothing, cigarettes, etc. – and when this happens I make sure to follow the specific guidance.
- Enjoy a self-care practice.
Finally, include a ritual for yourself by practicing a little self-care or self-nurturing. Some of my favorites include enjoying a warm tea, taking a salt bath, indulging in a glass of wine or piece of chocolate, sensual self-pleasure, massage with essential oils, charging crystals or cleansing other sacred objects, spending time in nature—anything that brings you pleasure, raises your vibration, and feels rejuvenating and healing to your body, mind, and soul.
I think this self-nurturing practice as part of rituals or spiritual practice is an important one. There is much magic and truth in the spirit realm we hope to reach and access, but without our own selves (our mind and body), it is impossible to manifest this magic into something that can influence our lives or our world. So, making this intentional commitment to nurture this vessel (our self) is also a sacred practice.
So, what do you think of these steps? All in all, however you decide to set up your altar and whatever spiritual or healing rituals you choose to perform there, I hope you find your altar to be a place of awakening, illumination, rejuvenation, healing, and spiritual growth. With time and practice, setting your altar will become more intuitive and increasingly aligned with your authentic energy and soul path.