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Altered Space: The Practice of Feng Shui

By Owen C. Franklin

"We might place living room furniture in a square around the fireplace. The square suggests security and stability, which you'd want in your family meeting place."

Shalmir Howarth thought her new house was the perfect find: a 200-year-old stone building nestled on 5 acres of rural property.

But her dream home proved to be — quite literally — a nightmare.

The problem wasn’t dry rot, leaky plumbing or noisy neighbors. Instead, Howarth discovered her home was plagued with an indescribable feeling of dread.

"Everything about the house carried this odd darkness," said Howarth. "The rooms were dark, the floors were dark. I had to rent a place because I was too afraid to go home."

Howarth wanted a renovation that could change the entire character of her home.

She turned to Feng Shui.

What’s Feng Shui?

Feng Shui (pronounced "fung shway") is the ancient Chinese practice of studying and shaping an environment. The underlying principle is that physical space affects human psychology.

Feng Shui practitioners examine rooms, houses, buildings and even cities. They study a wide spectrum of factors: the age of the building, the age of its residents, global location, color, lighting, geometric shapes, nearby plant life — all these contribute to Feng Shui calculations.

Once a site is examined, it can be molded and modified to promote a comfortable, healthy and nurturing environment.

Energetic Space

A critical element of Feng Shui is the idea that energy — often referred to as "qi" - flows through physical space. Some spaces should hold this energy, while others should keep it moving.

"One thing we look at are the pathways to and through a space," said Sylvia Watson, a Feng Shui consultant with Healing Environments . "You don’t want obstacles here that could prevent the flow of energy."


Another essential part of Feng Shui is "Yin and Yang": the idea that everything has an opposite. Feng Shui practitioners strive for a balance of light and dark, quiet and soft and private and public.

"It would be impractical to have perfect balance in every space," said Watson. "In a house, you might have some rooms that are Yin, others that are Yang and others that have a little of both."

Breaking space

According to Feng Shui, different areas of an environment affect different aspects of human behavior. For example, one corner of a room or yard can influence family relationships, while another affects our financial ambitions and success.

Asking questions

While Feng Shui practitioners have theories and tools to "decipher" an environment, they can’t know how it effects a person without asking questions. A personal interview helps them determine the individual’s feelings, problems and goals.

"At my interview, they asked a whole range [of questions]," said Howarth. "They started with my birthday. And they asked me what are three things I would like to change about my life."

Finding the connections

Once an environment is "mapped" and a person’s lifestyle discussed, a Feng Shui practitioner can see how one might be affecting the other.

"Sometimes a couple will tell us they’re having problems in their relationship," said Watson. "We’ll find the relationship area of their living room and see very threatening items, such as dried flowers, pointed plants, or artwork of people with their backs to each other."

Subtle hints

These "problem areas" can be rearranged to foster the right emotions. Feng Shui practitioners often use visual cues to send an unspoken message.

"You don’t want to have a stack of bills in your wealth or empowerment area," said Watson. "Instead, you might want to display awards, or something that you are proud of that shows you are capable of doing things."

Setting it right

According to Feng Shui, the placement of furniture is critical.

In some situations, Feng Shui theory is easy to understand: in an office, desks are often placed facing the door so a person can see who is entering a room. Other strategies are more esoteric.

"We might place living room furniture in a square around the fireplace," said Watson. "The square suggests security and stability, which you’d want in your family meeting place."

A contemporary comparison

While Feng Shui is thousands of years old, it can seem a bit too "new age" for many people. Some of its ideas and techniques, however, resemble the more contemporary and mainstream practice of interior design.

Many design consultants strive for good "traffic flow" through a house — an idea similar to Feng Shui’s concept of flowing energy. Design consultants also hone in on visual cues to highlight the character and purpose of a room.

"I think your environment has a lot to do with how you relax and relate to other people," said Regina Rafferty, a design consultant at Furniture.com. "Your home can really ground you. And then, when you go out into the world where we have less control, you feel more focused and composed."

The skeptics

While the practice has support from many design professionals, skeptics still see a clear distinction between aesthetics and Feng Shui. Although a well-decorated room may please the eye, there is no scientific proof that it can draw upon earthly forces and take precise aim at human psychology.

"Feng Shui is like many superstitions," said Dr. Barry Beyerstein, a psychology professor at Simon Fraser University. "These times are so uncertain and people are looking for a ritual or tool they can use for a little protection and hedge against fate."

The fact that there are no standardized Feng Shui credentials also raises doubts. Anyone can claim to be an "expert."

Trust in change

Despite criticism from skeptics, many Feng Shui practitioners and their clients have faith in the craft.

"Before my house was changed, I wasn’t dating anyone," said Howarth. "They changed some artwork and worked on the relationship areas of my home … I’ve been dating ever since."

Still, few Feng Shui practitioners claim to wield supernatural powers.

"I’m not a psychic, I’m not a miracle worker and I’m not a fairy godmother," said Angi Ma Wong, author of Feng Shui Dos and Taboos: A Guide to What to Put Where. (www.wind-water.com) "All I can guarantee is that I can bring about change."

Owen C. Franklin is a content producer at savvyHEALTH.com.

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