Dream yoga

by | Jan 1, 2023

The utility of sleep is undeniable and of late, there have been excellent books emphasizing it. Matthew Walker, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, has published in his 2017 book, Why We Sleep, declaring beyond ambiguity the impact of sleep on the human brain. The book, while teaching the basics behind how sleep works neurologically and biologically, cautions against cognitive impairment along with brain damage due to sleep deprivation. 

Sleep is inseparable from dreams. The whole night, we go through the cinema of dreams, mostly fulfilling our wishes and living out our fantasies, but also suffering scary nightmares and feeling a high degree of anxiety and terror in the process. There are hundreds of books about the interpretation of dreams, starting with Austrian neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams published in 1899, to The Complete Book of Dreams by wellness consultant and modern mystic Stephanie Gailing, published in 2020. Gyan hi gyan hai!

I have been an avid reader of books on dreams and could get rid of my chronic migraine headaches in the mid-1980s by practicing insights from Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality, written by psychiatrist and psychotherapist Frederick “Fritz” Perls with two co-authors. The book taught me to enhance the awareness of my mind and bodily feelings in the present moment. Later, I read about mindfulness and tried to practice it, without much progress. Bad dreams continued to trouble my sleep and I, by and large, failed to decipher their meanings. 

But recently, triggered by Chade-Meng Tan’s book, Search Inside Yourself, I read almost a dozen books, including two celebrated books by the psychologist Daniel Goleman Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence, and two books by Jon Kabat-Zinn Full Catastrophe Living, and Coming to Our Senses. Kabat-Zinn is a professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and has been running a Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program to great success, since 1979. But the climax came after I read Dream Yoga by Andrew Holecek. 

First and foremost, the book aptly defines yoga as “that which yokes or unites.” To make what is fragmented a whole again is yoga – synchronizing body and mind at the least, and eventually, the conscious and unconscious mind with the cosmic mind. Then it introduces the scientific term for the study of dreams as oneirology and exhorts readers to explore their inner space like astronauts explore outer space, by becoming “oneironauts.” Rooted in Tibetan Buddhism, the Vajrayana branch, the book brilliantly succeeds in taking the reader from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from the exotic to the esoteric, and from the easy to the more difficult. 

There was a hugely successful film, Inception, released in 2010, about dreams. The hero, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a professional thief who can steal information by infiltrating the minds of people. He takes up an “assignment” to get into the dreams of the heir to a Japanese business empire, by his competitor. The plot thickens when the hero enters the dream world and is confronted by his deceased wife who had committed suicide, and the hero feels guilty about being the real cause of her death. The unconscious mind protects itself by weird imagery in dreams, and skills are needed to uncover its secrets. The point the film made is that the dream world and the waking world are entwined.  

Andrew Holecek’s book turned the tables by declaring that it is not that our sleep in the night depends upon what happened during the day, but rather, what happens during our sleep decides how we flair up the next day. Holecek writes, “When you fall asleep every night, you are actually falling awake. You just don’t know it yet.” Taken at its face value, how do I benefit from this knowledge? It is here that the book delivers. 

Simple tips are provided to induce “lucid” dreams, which means dreams in which you are conscious of dreaming. I like the advice to lie down in Buddha’s famous Loin Posture the right hand is folded and placed under the head, with a finger gently closing the right nostril, the left-hand rests on the left thigh, and the legs are very slightly bent. Then bring your awareness to the breath going inside and coming out, while the mind dissolves in a “hypnagogic” state – you are still aware of the world and yet images are floating – and finally dipping into a deep sleep.

Dreams are only a part of the total sleep, which happens in 90-minute cycles – about 5 cycles every night. Initially, the sleep is mostly deep, without dreams (called Non-rapid Eye Movement or NREM sleep), and later, towards morning, it is mostly full of dreams (Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep). The book calls our ability to be conscious in a dream, Dream Yoga, with the purpose of confronting what is scary and fearful, and changing the dream. For example, if someone is chasing you, just stop running mindlessly, turn back, and confront the chaser. Or, if you are locked, or trapped in a maze, find an opening, and emerge out. If there is a fire, enter it. If there is water, walk into it; if there is a height, a cliff, jump without fear – because after all, it is only a dream. 

Holecek invokes the majesty and fearlessness of a lion and asks us to be like one in the dream. He writes, “The lion is the king of the jungle, fearless and uncontested. His gaze is set in contrast to the gaze of a dog… if you throw a stick out and away from a dog, the dog will chase after the stick. But if you throw a stick out and away from a lion, the lion will chase you. The lion’s gaze is set upon the thrower, not on what is being thrown. We all have the gaze of a dog, forever chasing the sticks thrown out by our minds. We’re constantly running after the thoughts and emotions that are endlessly tossed up from within… And that’s the basis of our suffering… it takes a fearless gaze to look deeply within the jungle of our own mind.” 

My take on Dream Yoga, of what all it may mean, is to take a “cinematic view” of day-to-day life. Be like a spectator watching a film and living the events around seeing people around you as actors performing their roles – teachers, helpers, masters, drivers, traders, doctors… even “friends” and “enemies.” Centuries earlier than William James, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad declared:

अत्र पितापिता भवति, मातामाता, लोका अलोकाः, देवा अदेवाः, वेदा अवेदाः। अत्र स्तेनोऽस्तेनो भवति, भ्रूणहाभ्रूणहा, चाण्डालोऽचण्डालः, पौल्कसोऽपौल्कसः, श्रमणोऽश्रमणः, तापसोऽतापसः। 

In this state, a father is not a father; a mother is not a mother; the worlds are not worlds; the gods are not gods; the Vedas are not the Vedas. In this state, a thief is not a thief; the killer is not a killer; there are no high castes, intercastes, or outcasts; a monk is not a monk; a hermit is not a hermit. (4.3.22)

So, imagine while retiring to your bed every night that you are resting in the embrace and wisdom of the Cosmic or Universal Self, which is free from desire and without fear. With practice, you will wake up in a state that Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore called Chitto Jetha Bhoyshunno Where the mind is without fear. 

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11 Comments

  1. Sir, this a very interesting blog on dreams to begin the new year. We all see this great show of dreams every night – sometimes it is pleasant and good, but other times confusing and even scary. As the rational part of the brain is disconnected, the emotional part of the brain runs riots and creates drama, not possible during the waking drama.

    As Dr. Ben Karenzi commented, dreams are essential for health. My take is how do I take them after waking up? If I search for meaning with worry and fear I will produce stress in my waking life. But if I water them with optimism and solutions it will cultivate success. Lookout for ways to turn a problem into an opportunity for success in dreams every night. A snake in the dream need not scare you but a message for the shedding of one’s skin or relate to health and spiritual problems. Thank you for your wise message. Keep enlightening us.

  2. Fascinating insight into sleep and dreams, Prof Tiwariji !

    Your ingenious exposition of abstract concepts is brilliant !!

  3. It’s great to read this first blog in the new year. I am happy to read about my favourite Inception movie. While dreams hold the key to the unseen world operating upon us as you so aptly explained, I would like to add three simple factors that ‘create’ dreams – health condition, food at dinner, and activity in the day.

    Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, and other mood-related conditions, can trigger intense and sometimes disturbing or negative dreams and nightmares. The medications for these conditions, including antidepressants and antipsychotics, are also associated with a higher risk of nightmares.

    High-carb foods, for example, can give you quick energy. But after a while, they can leave you feeling down. Anything that affects your waking mood is likely to affect your unconscious mood, too. So, if a sugar crash has you moping around during the day, those feelings could carry over into your sleep.

    Runners and other serious fitness enthusiasts tend to spend less time in dreamy REM sleep, which is one of the lightest stages of sleep. Also, the more effectively you can de-stress during the day, the less likely you’ll be to bring stress and anxiety to bed. That should help cut down on nightmares and interrupted sleep each night.

  4. Very explicitly described. It is essential and refreshing.
    It is through the ‘medium’ , we get creative, generate new ideas and become productive.
    I suggest that this article be circulated among the new generation who compromise on sleep and miss the dreams.
    Seasons greetings to all.

  5. A very useful information on sleep and dreams. A poem of William Blake comes to my mind:

    Sleep, sleep, beauty bright,
    Dreaming in the joys of night.
    Sleep, sleep; in thy sleep
    Little sorrows sit and weep …

    I must add caution against taking any sleep medication as it impairs the most beneficial physiological and psychological process inbuilt in the body.

    Thank you for a very useful blog. Keep educating Sir.

  6. Happy new year Sir. Its pleasure to read your blog in the New Year. Sleep is an integral part of life and dreams are inseparable from dreams. The dream phase of sleep, called REM sleep, helps reduce the emotional tone of our memories. This means that when something stressful or traumatic happens to you, the REM phase of sleep helps to gradually decrease your emotional response to that event.

    Another more evolutionary health benefit is that dreaming is a way for our brains to prepare us for precarious events. For example, when we see a lion, we want to quickly recognize it’s dangerous and run away. It prepares us for a high stake’s situation—where one could be finished if not react fast enough. Thank you for highlighting this important aspect.

  7. Sir delighted to read this wonderful blog at the beginning of the new year. Undoubtedly dreams are part and parcel of life. How dreams are formed can have umpteen causes, but impressions of waking perception and cognition is one amongst them. Now this idea that dream content affects the later waking life is interesting and needs reflection.

  8. First a very happy and prosperous new year 2023. Dreams takes to a new world and at times, these represent inner truths. At times, we tend to ignore inner truth, which our dream bring it out. Belive it or not, dreams when interpreted correctly, told me what is going to happen next and I had a set of such dreams.

    A great mathematician Ramanujan attributed to dream and dream godess to solve complex mathematical problems, including the value of pie. Was he a dream Yogi? Can we be a dream Yogi and solve some difficult problems?

  9. जगत् की माता जगदम्बा दुर्गा की उपासना का एक श्लोक है:

    या देवी सर्वभूतेषु निद्रारूपेण संस्थिता।
    नमस्तस्यै नमस्तस्यै नमस्तस्यै नमो नमः।।

    मातेश्वरी दुर्गा जी समस्त प्राणियों मे निद्रा रूप मे स्थित हैं। सुखमय नींद आ जाने पर तन-मन की सम्पूर्ण थकान दूर हो जाती है और जगने पर प्राणी पूर्ण स्वस्थ एवं स्फूर्ति युक्त हो जाता है। सोते समय इस मन्त्र का ध्यान करना अन्य उपायों से अधिक सरल और सुलभ है।

  10. Dear Sir, Thank you for sharing a unique blog on dreams,

    I remember you bought us to observe sign and symptoms of nature, and I consider dreams one of the nature’s sign and guiding principle. I have seen several times dream has guided me on response to be given in the real world scenario. Like for example, if in a dream you see a lion roaring on you, for me its a sign of someone at work or home close to you is trying to dominate on you, therefore I do some observations on my real world interactions and respond to those people whom I feel trying to dominate me, and it works.

    Sometime, dreams represents the needs pf physical body, like you must have seen dreaming yourself doing urination and defecation, in actual your physical body is giving a sign that now you have to wakeup and go for morning activities to get fresh. I will keep learning how to read these dreams and take my calls in the real world, Once again thank you for sharing such a wonderful blog, Warm Regards.

  11. Dear Prof Tiwari

    Happy and blessed 2023 to you and your family!

    As always, thank you for your sharing your insights on dreams .

    As a medical doctor, I always look forward to restful sleep and dreams as a way of refreshing my neurosystem.

    As for interpretation, I leave it to others …

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