Dream Work

This article follows our previous blog on Sleep and Dreaming in Yoga, where we examined how Dream Work can become part of our yoga and self-development toolkit. This time we look more closely at how we can practically work with dreams to enhance our ability to perceive and illuminate the energetic world.

What if I’m not dreaming?

Many who claim not to dream might be experiencing either poor quality sleep or difficulty remembering their dreams.  Dreaming, or at least remembering your dreams, requires at least some component of Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep.  This is a sleep phase forms 20-25%, approximately 90-120 minutes of a total night’s sleep in most people.

REM sleep is characterised by higher levels of brain activity and low muscle tone or paralysis. Deprivation of this sleep phase can contribute to levels of anxiety, irritability, increased appetite and difficulties with concentration.

To improve your quality of sleep, review your sleep environment, bedtime ritual, levels of daytime exercise and nutrition:

  • Daily exercise, in particular yoga, is proven to improve sleep quality. 
  • Your sleep environment should be quiet, dark and uncluttered.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and other chemicals known to interfere with sleep. 
  • Establish a consistent bedtime ritual to establish wind down messages for the mind and body.  
  • Practice gentle pranayama (breathing exercises) in bed with a focus on slow, abdominal or diaphragmatic breathing.

Remembering Dreams

Dreams are notoriously hard to remember.  The first step with dream work is to capture the content of your dreams so that you have material for subsequent analysis. Scientific research indicates that the brain’s hippocampus and the prefrontal neocortex interact differently during REM sleep phase when dreaming occurs.  The hippocampus is thought to be where memories are formed and the prefrontal neocortex is a potential location for the storage of memories.  The changes in communication between these two parts of the brain during REM sleep may also be why dreams are difficult to remember. 

Try the following techniques to remember your dreams:

  • Journal: Write the details down as soon as you wake.  Purchase a dedicated dream journal and prepare it by your bed with a pen so you can capture your dreams immediately.
  • Voice Memo: Most smartphones include a voice memo feature.  While better quality sleep is achieved when your phone is not in your bedroom at night, voice memos can quickly capture your dream content.  If you do keep your phone in your room, ensure it is in silent mode and face down or in a drawer before you go to sleep.  There are also new smartphone apps in development like Shadow (discovershadow.com) that plan to include voice memo capture and use voice recognition software to build a database of dreams.
  • Intention: Set a clear intention to remember your dreams.  Eventually, you can be as specific as to set an intention to work on a particular problem in dreaming, however, initially, a simple intention to remember your dreams will help. (More on intention in dream work below.)

Lucid Dreaming

Lucid dreaming is ‘the ability to become aware of dreaming while in the dream state.’ In The Art of Dreaming, Yacqui Indian Sorcerer Don Juan asks Carlos Castaneda to look at his hands while he is dreaming to become lucid. Later he explains that this is just an arbitrary instruction to get Castaneda to engage his dreaming attention.

“…pick anything at all.  But pick one thing in advance and find it in your dreams.  I said your hands because they will always be there.” (Castaneda, Journey to Ixtlan, p.100)

You can similarly choose to ‘find your hands’ or focus on anything specific with the intention of becoming aware while you are dreaming.  Setting the intention before sleep is particularly effective. 

It is important to mention at this point that intention setting, as well as lucid dreaming, has been criticised as establishing expectation or mental modelling that might affect the unspoilt nature of a dream or dilute any messages from the Self.  Waggoner addresses this criticism with the metaphor that, ‘no sailor controls the sea.’ Learning to remember, focus and explore dreams does not suggest control over the unconscious or subconscious.  Dream work has much more to teach us than for us to fear.

Understanding the Energy Body

Lucid dreaming can also become a vehicle for understanding and working with the energy body. Don Juan even suggests to Castaneda that this is the, “…true goal of dreaming, to perfect the energy body.” (Castaneda, The Art of Dreaming, 27)

Yogis generally subscribe to the idea of a gross and subtle body in the ‘science of the soul’:

  • The Gross Body is thought to be made up of the physical;
  • The Subtle Body comprises the etheric and astral or pranic bodies;
  • The Mental Body is the instinctive mind (manas) and intellect (buddhi)
  • The Causal Body contains the will, ego (ahankara) and repetitive patterns and impressions from past experiences (samskara).

The categorisation of these body elements vary between traditions but most consider the Soul (atma) or Self transcends these bodies. Dream work leverages the subtle body by experimenting with the idea of travelling in, and between, dreams.

It is not an uncommon experience to ‘dream you wake up,’ only to later find that you are still dreaming. Once skills in lucid dreaming are developed, it becomes possible to focus attention and transition dreams in this kind of way with intention, beginning to ‘travel’ in the dream state.  

One striking quality about lucid dreaming and its potential in self-development is the thematic correlation with techniques such as Yoga Nidra and Meditation.  Mastering focus, maintaining singularity and connecting with the energy body are skills in all three methods to achieve states of deep relaxation, insight and liberation.  It is as though the techniques are advancing the same goals from different sides of consciousness

Exercise Caution

It is worthwhile at this point to emphasise the risk of using dream techniques without guidance, a teacher or support to integrate experiences. As with any spiritual work, it can be difficult to remain objective, quiet the ego and track progress within the Self.  

Heavy or literal emphasis on dream symbols can also cause confusion and distress.  Freudian dream interpretation operates from the assumption that the subconscious contains all repressed conflicts, hence its emphasis on dream interpretations as past trauma and repressed sexuality.  Jung also believed in a subconscious but preferred to view its role as spiritual and having two levels: the personal; and the collective.  
Jung believed dream symbolism was individual and that dreams served to guide and solve problems of the waking world.

As Don Juan cautioned Castaneda throughout the Art of Dreaming, “Regard dreaming as something extremely dangerous!” He maintained that dreaming was an energy-creating condition in which the dreamer could be lost without trained focus and attention. 


  1. Why Dreams Are So Difficult To Remember: Precise Communication Discovered Across Brain Areas During Sleep, Science Daily, from material sourced at California Institute of Technology, 9 March 2009,  http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090225132249.htm
  2. Castaneda, C, The Art of Dreaming, Harper Collins, 1993.
  3. Castaneda, C, Journey to Ixtlan, Washington Square Press, 1991.
  4. Bright, B, Working with Dreams: Depth Psychology Techniques of Carl Gustav Jung and James Hillman, Depth Insights, 19 April 2013 http://www.depthinsights.com/blog/working-with-dreams-depth-psychology-techniques-of-carl-gustav-jung-and-james-hillman/#sthash.PERVfSGp.dpuf
  5. Halpern J, Cohen M, Kennedy G, Reece J, Cahan C, Baharav A, “Yoga for improving sleep quality and quality of life for older adults,” Alternative Therapies In Health And Medicine, 2014 May-Jun;20(3):37-46. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24755569
  6. Laberge, S, “Lucid Dreaming: Psychophysiological Studies of Consciousness during REM Sleep”, In Bootzen, R.R., Kihlstrom, J.F. & Schacter, D.L., (Eds.) Sleep and Cognition. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1990 (pp. 109-126) http://www.lucidity.com/SleepAndCognition.html
  7. Waggoner, R, Lucid Dreaming: Gateway to the Inner Self, Moment Point Press, 2009. 




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