Sleep and Dreaming in Yoga

Fluctuations of sleep


What is the role of sleep and dreaming in our self-development ‘toolkit’. Do you consider your sleep and dreams as a cause, symptom or tool in yogic self-study?

For many of us, sleep and dreaming are the first and most accessible demonstrations of the layers of our consciousness. The effects of fluctuations in sleep can be observed in waking life and dreams offer a window to the state of our minds. The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali lists sleep as one of the five fluctuations of consciousness that may be afflicted or unafflicted (1.6).

Dreamless sleep and dream states can be regarded as obstacles to meditative absorption, as in many of the Upanishads and the Baghavad Gita,

“Arjuna, those who eat too much or eat too little, who sleep too much or sleep too little, will not succeed in meditation.” (16)

However, dreams are alluded to in the Yoga Sutras as a potential tool for transcendence,

“Or [restriction/stillness is achieved when consciousness] rests on insights [arising from] dreams and sleep.”  (1.38)

Lucid Dreaming Research

In the west, scientific studies on Lucid Dreaming, dreaming when aware one is dreaming, date back to 1867 with Marquis d'Hervey de Saint Denys book, Dreams and the Ways to Direct Them. Further popularised in the 1960s, lucid dreaming has since been researched in more detail in clinical applications for neurological and psychological conditions. This research is troubled however, by subjectivity and the burden of empirical evidence.  How can we know when and what someone is dreaming?

Lucid dreaming studies have identified neural activity during apparent physiological sleep. Electroencephalograph (EEG) studies have demonstrated Signal Verified Lucid Dreams (SVLDs) during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep stages. This has shown that all systems of the body and mind are ‘not equally asleep’ during lucid dreaming. Moreover, these studies indicate that dream development, particularly in children, can be correlated to stages of cognitive development.  This is significant because in most cultures, we are not taught how to dream.  What if we were?


Dream Work

I first came across this concept of proactively working with dreams in the 1990s when I read The Art of Dreaming by Carlos Castaneda.  In the book, Castaneda shares knowledge learned from Mexican Yacqui Indian Shaman, Don Juan Matus, on the seven gates of dreaming.  This knowledge is founded on the premise that we exist, not in a world of objects, but in a world of energy.  This is an idea corroborated by the yoga paradigm where prana (energy) and citta (information/consciousness) comprise all things seen and unseen.  It is also an idea debated in science: quantum mechanics and quantum physics suggest that energy and information are the fundamental building blocks of matter.

This is a profound shift on the way we perceive the world and ourselves. Don Juan calls perception of the energetic world the ‘second attention’ and the gates of dreaming represent a pathway to refine this perception:

    1. Learning to control attention in dreams
    2. Learning to transition within and between dreams
    3. Learning to identify yourself in a dream
    4. Learning to travel with the energy body in dreams
    5. Learning to travel with the energy body in waking life
    6. Learn to transport the energy body in waking life
    7. Learn to transcend beyond the waking world

These gates can loosely correlate to the ‘science of the soul’ and the ‘sheaths’ or koshas of the Self in yoga and Vedantic traditions: the gross; subtle; mental and causal bodies.  Yoga also employs ‘Yoga Nidra’ or ‘psychic sleep’ where deep, methodical relaxation is a tool for transformation. The technique works on the mind when the body is in a deep state of relaxation, not complete physiological sleep. In this relaxed state, the body is receptive to an intention created by our intelligence making all kinds of transformation possible. 

Perhaps dream work can compliment techniques like Yoga Nidra on the other side of sleep to enhance our ability to perceive and illuminate the energetic world. Journal your dreams, they may just prove invaluable to your practice.

Next Time: Working with dreams. To stay in touch, get on the list at


    1. 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).
    2. Feuerstein, G, The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice, Hohm Press, 2008.
    3. Marshall, B, The Perennial Way, TAT Foundation Press, 2011. 
    4. Easwaran, E, The Bhagavad Gita, Second Edition, Blue Mountain Center of Meditation, 2007.
    5. Castaneda, C, The Art of Dreaming, Harper Collins, 1993

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