In the path of integral Yoga and self-perfection, no aspects of life are unimportant and without meaning. As we progress on the path, we learn to pay conscious attention to all areas of our daily life — work, diet, leisure, human relationships — with the intention of integrating them to our yogic aspiration and effecting a positive transformation of our whole being, and not just the part of ourselves which we engage with in dedicated yogic practice.
One aspect of our daily lives often overlooked is sleep, something quite important considering that more than one-third of our entire life is spent sleeping! Through svapna-yoga, or the art of paying conscious attention to our sleep and dreams, we can turn all this time spent sleeping into an active part of our daily yoga practice, or sādhanā. At the same time, we can cure ourselves of common sleep problems such as restlessness, insomnia, sleepwalking or sleep-talking, and waking up tired.
Our dream recall can be strengthened and improved and the quality of our dreams can become better — instead of subconscious, confused dreams and nightmares we can experience more luminous, pleasant and helpful dreams and even positive spiritual experiences. In this way the ordinary sleep of unconsciousness can be transformed into yoga-nidrā, or yogic repose: the conscious, luminous and restful sleep of a yogi.
It is true that for a long time I have not slept in the usual sense of the word. That is to say, at no time do I fall into the inconscience which is the sign of ordinary sleep. But I do give my body the rest it needs, that is, two or three hours of lying down in a condition of absolute immobility in which the whole being, mental, psychic, vital and physical, enters into a complete state of rest made of perfect peace, absolute silence and total immobility, while the consciousness remains perfectly awake; or else I enter into an internal activity of one or more states of being, an activity which constitutes the occult work and which, needless to say, is also perfectly conscious. So I can say, in all truth, that I never lose consciousness throughout the twenty-four hours, which thus form an unbroken sequence, and that I no longer experience ordinary sleep, while still giving my body the rest that it needs.The Mother (Mirra Alfassa)
Fundamentals of Svapna-Yoga
The fundamental practices of Svapna-Yoga can be divided into two main bodies of practice: the practice before sleep and the practice after waking. At an advanced stage and after diligent application of these two practices, a third body of practice eventually opens up, i.e., the practice applied during sleep and dreaming.
The Practice Before Sleep
The first step in transforming our sleep into a state of yogic repose is to learn how to consciously relax and prepare our body and mind before going to sleep, instead of just “falling asleep” any which way.
This can be achieved by forming a daily habit of progressively relaxing all the nerves and muscles of the body, from head to toe, as one lies down in bed before sleeping. One must try to lie on one’s back and make the body as loose and limp as an inert rag. This is very similar to the state one tries to reach in the śavāsana pose (corpse pose) during haṭha-yoga practice. An easy method here is to settle into a relaxed breathing pattern and direct one’s attention to each part of the body in turn, with a relaxing intention.
The same relaxation has also to be effected in one’s brain and mind and emotions — all thoughts, stresses and anxieties of the day should be calmed and stilled as much as possible. One of the most powerful practices here is to make a movement of surrender of one’s whole being to the Divine within, one’s guru, or one’s iṣṭadevatā (chosen deity).
After we have relaxed our body and mind as much as possible, the last step is to create a positive intention, or saṃkalpa, which is expressive of our spiritual aspiration and our intention to have a conscious and restful sleep. This can be in the form of any mantra or prayer or affirmation which is special and sacred to us. This saṃkalpa will carry us forward into sleep and protect us from heavy, inert sleep and bad dreams and nightmares.
Having formed our saṃkalpa, we allow ourselves to pass peacefully from a meditative state into sleep.
The Practice After Waking
After waking, ideally without an alarm clock, we should be careful to rouse ourselves very gently and not make any sudden movements, as this is jarring to the inner being and will prevent us from clearly recalling our dreams. We especially should try to keep our head still as we immediately try to recall the last dream we were having before waking. This is because sudden movements of the physical body tend to bring our awareness strongly to the physical world and “blot out” the subtler memories of the inner, non-physical state where dreams occur.
Keeping still, we should slowly “pull the thread” as it were from the last dream backwards to earlier dreams and try to focus on any dream impressions or images which linger in our minds, trying to remember as much as possible all that we can remember of our dreams from the previous night.
Keeping it all in mind we should then wake and write down as much as possible about our dreams into a notebook, or record it digitally into our phone or computer. This material should then be studied at our leisure, which will offer us much in the way of self-knowledge and understanding.
Q: Is it useful to note down one’s dreams? A: Yes, for more than a year I applied myself to this kind of self-discipline. I noted down everything—a few words, just a little thing, an impression—and I tried to pass from one memory to another. At first it was not very fruitful, but at the end of about fourteen months I could follow, beginning from the end, all the movements, all the dreams right up to the beginning of the night. That puts you in such a conscious, continuously conscious state that finally I was not sleeping at all. My body lay stretched, deeply asleep, but there was no rest in the consciousness. The result was absolutely wonderful; you become conscious of the different phases of sleep, conscious absolutely of everything that happens there, to the least detail, then nothing can any longer escape your control. But if during the day you have a lot of work and you truly need sleep, I advise you not to try! In any case, there is one thing altogether indispensable, not to make the least movement when you wake up; you must learn to wake up in a state of complete immobility, otherwise everything disappears.The Mother (Mirra Alfassa)
Progress in Svapna-Yoga
Holding to our saṃkalpa of having conscious, restful sleep, and practicing diligently to recall and note down our dreams upon waking, we will not only boost our dream recall (sometimes to tremendous proportions), but we learn as well to be conscious and aware even while we are dreaming and have conscious control over our dream activities. This is what is commonly called today “Lucid Dreaming”.
We also learn in studying our dreams and dream experiences over time to differentiate between different classes and types of dreams. We experience the usual subconscient dreams which are confused mashups of our previous memories and experiences without much order, coherence or meaning. This type of dream should decrease in frequency over time.
We note symbolic dreams which are always instructive to some extent or another and we learn to decode the symbolic imagery peculiar to our own individuality, as each one’s symbolic imagery is unique.
We may even start to experience premonitory dreams which give indications of events which may happen in the future, as well as have subliminal experiences of the inner mind and life planes while we dream.
And lastly, at an advanced stage of yoga it is possible to even have higher experiences of a psychic or spiritual nature.
In addition to these marks of progress, we may find that we do not require as much sleep as we previously did, since we learn to rest consciously in the restful immobility of sacchidānanda, or Existence-Consciousness-Bliss, which is the one true restorative to a tired body and mind.
Needless to say, common sleep difficulties like insomnia and nightmares will also be completely cured.
According to the Mother’s experience and knowledge one passes from waking through a succession of states of sleep consciousness which are in fact an entry and passage into so many worlds and arrives at a pure Sachchidananda state of complete rest, light and silence; afterwards one retraces one’s way till one reaches the waking physical state. It is this Sachchidananda period that gives sleep all its restorative value.Sri Aurobindo
As this is only the barest of outlines describing the Yoga of Sleep and Dreams, further instruction in all the nuances of the practice should be sought out from recommended books or from one’s spiritual teacher or guru.
In the tradition of Integral Yoga, there is much to be found on the subject in the works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.
We highly recommend one book which is a compilation of the most pertinent extracts from Sri Aurobindo and the Mother on the subject, called The Yoga of Sleep and Dreams: The Night-School of Sadhana, compiled by A.S. Dalal.
May your nights be conscious and restful and your dreams luminous and inspiring!
- Yoga of Sleep & Dreams$3.50