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Chi Whiz

From Washingtonian Magazine, March 2004

Could Changing Your Home’s Décor help You Lose Weight? Would Painting the Bedroom Spice Up Your Love Life? Feng Shui May Hold the Answers.

By Christina Ianzito

My bedroom, it turns out, needs more fire. Worse, my toilet has been draining my earning potential.

These are things I’ve had to worry about since a feng shui consultant surveyed my living space. “Your resources are being flushed down the toilet,” Nancy Wesson says of my bathroom, which is in the wealth corner of my apartment.

I didn’t even know I had a wealth corner until a half hour ago. Such is the way of feng shui (sound like fung-shway), which translates to “wind and water”: You begin to perceive layers of meaning in the most ordinary things.

Wesson takes pains to rid feng shui of its hocus-pocus associations. It’s not a religion or a cult or even a philosophy, she explains, “it’s a practice.” That practice is the ancient Chinese art of placement, which posits that you have the power to create positive energy (chi), and therefore a better life, through the proper arrangement of the material things around you. It’s a mix of tenets that range from the wacky (some say that a house whose entrance faces north should be painted green or red) to the obvious (get rid of clutter). The latter is what’s helping feng shui shake off its flaky image.

Feng shui is moving so much into the mainstream that Wal-Mart press release, “Feng Shui the Inexpensive Way” points to Wal-Mart products such as mirrors, which have the power “to redirect the flow of energy and promote a calming effect.”

Meanwhile, consultants are serving clients at pretty unflaky places—the world Bank, USA Today, and the Department of Labor, to name a few—not to mention, as one consultant confides coyly, “fairly high-ranking government officials.” Local businesses are hiring feng shui experts to help improve productivity by rearranging cubicles and offices.

Not everyone is excited about the idea of examining his or her chi. There are still plenty of people—my husband among them—who would agree with a veteran Washington real-estate agent who tells me, “I think it’s a bunch of crap.”

“There’s been some resistance,” concedes Carol Olmstead, a feng shui practitioner in Bethesda whose business is called Feng Shui for Real Life. “But it’s more and more commonplace. It really doesn’t have to mean red ribbons and bamboo flutes everywhere.”

The feng shui consultant’s tool is the bagua map, which looks like a tic-tac-toe board. Each of the nine squares represent a core life blessing such as Creativity & Children, Health & Family, Love & Relationships. When it’s projected onto the floor plan of a house or room, the physical objects within each square should be harmonious with the “intention” ascribed to it.

Annie Pane, a Woodbridge-based practitioner who also visited my home for a consultation, sums up feng shui as “a way of living your life so that you’re in control of your environment, and if you’re in control of your environment, then you’re in control of your life.”

Objects can have negative energy. “I’ve seen women lose weight by getting rid of unused exercise equipment,” she says, because “every time they looked at it they felt like a failure.” Another tip: Keep a silk plant in the bedroom to represent life and vitality.

Nancilee Wydra, founder of the Florida-based Feng Shui Institute of America, explains the practice a “human psychology and a lot of biology in a cultural context.” Wydra calls herself the “bete noir of feng shui,” because she likes to strip away its “woo-woo nonsense.”

The woo-woo nonsense she refers to often comes from the followers of the more traditional school o feng shui who rely on compass directions, lunar charts, and a form of numerology. Some of the practice is based on ancient principles that were once logical but no longer are—such as the need for a south-facing home. ages ago, when feng shui was conceived in northern China, a house needed to face south to be protected from damaging winds—not an issue today if you have central heating.

Even in Western feng shui, the line between common sense and nonsense is easily crossed. Wesson, a professional-looking woman of 55 who otherwise offers me intelligent and useful redesign suggestions, tells me to get rid of the mirror opposite my bed. This is because my energy leaves my body while I sleep, “and if it sees the reflection in the mirror it’s confusing and hard to get back into the body.”

Pane, a 51-year old former real-estate broker, shows up at my condo, measuring tape in hand. She begins by calculating, to the inch, the dimensions of each room. Then she lays a bagua over a floor plan, which will reveal whether my basket of dirty laundry is unwisely stowed in the “Fame and Reputation” area of my apartment (yes, it is). The whole process can take several hours and cost about $450, since it involves some heavy lifting. Pane likes to move furniture herself instead of leaving the homeowner with a list of recommendations. She wants to be there when the energy shifts.

When I later report that my husband is unhappy with the new feng shui of our living room—the couch is tilted from the wall, to ”embrace” those who enter—she says, “make love with him tonight. Then he’ll associate the change with something positive.” (I don’t find that one in the Feng Shui for Dummies book.”

Every consultant has her own style. Before she surveys my apartment, Wesson spends an hour prying more personal information from me than my dear mother will ever know.

Like Wesson, Payne tells me that my bedroom is too cold: The walls and bedspread are white, the sheets are blue, the art is white and blue. I need “fire” colors (reds and purples) for balance. “Paint the walls the color of skin,” she says. And, please don’t keep pictures of your parents in your boudoir: “Everything in your bedroom becomes a trigger for the emotions you want in our relationship.” Mom and Dad, presumably, won’t trigger a romantic interlude.

I later compare notes with Jennifer Sullivan, a former Pane clients who lives in Falls Church. “I was pretty skeptical about this,” she admits. “I mean, I’m a layer. But the house has a completely different feel now. I fell better, like it’s made me freer to make some decision in my life.”

At this point I’m more or less convinced that a feng shui makeover is worth a shot—or at least can’t hurt, barring some sort of accident in Home Depot, where I go to choose my bedroom’s new color. Taking the expert’s word for it, I pick a sandy brown, which is somebody’s skin color, if not mine. Eventually, I add some red-ad-gold pillows, stash the dirty laundry in a nice hamper, and put white flowery curtains on the windows.

The warm color increases the romantic factor several notches; it’s a different room, a place you’d want to curl up with a book or... whatever. My husband admits that the place looks great, but just for the record, he still doesn’t believe in feng shui.
Carol Olmstead, 301-530-32112,
This former communications consultant offers classes at The Great Indoors store in Gaithersburg, as well as private consultations for $150 an hour.

© Copyright 2024, Carol Olmstead