Yoga and Dreams

One of the impressive observations to be found in the literature on yoga practices, yet seldom if at all in Western physiology or psychology, is the connection between the breath and the mind. Such yoga teachings state that there is always a connection between the breath and mental states. It can be observed for instance that when angry a person’s breath is agitated and quite different to when the person is mentally focused on something like a mathematical problem. There is yet another difference in the breathing and the mental state when the person is asleep.

Using the control of the breath, the posture of the body, and other disciplines, practitioners of the various types of yoga in India and other countries in the Far East, explored the dimensions of the mind. From such explorations traditional yoga defined four basic modes of consciousness. These are: 1] Waking consciousness. 2] Consciousness while asleep and dreaming. 3] Consciousness while asleep but not dreaming. 4] Cataleptic consciousness.

Different levels of consciousness

One could add to this the condition of being asleep and dreaming, yet lucid in the dream. Apart from waking consciousness, one is usually asleep while experiencing these levels or modes of consciousness. But through the discipline of meditation or breath control, the practitioner can gradually enter into these ‘sleep’ modes while still maintaining a form of waking awareness. In modern dream terminology this is called lucidity.

This has in it something of the situation one faces when entering into a different environment than is considered normal for human life. For instance swimming under water confronts us with quite a different experience of ourselves and the environment than in our normal everyday life of walking around on the surface of the earth. In fact dreams often use the image of the sea, or swimming under water to portray this entrance into our sub-conscious or sub-ordinary life. The reason this ability to remain lucid in sleep is sought, often through long years of discipline, is because of the greatly enlarged realm of mental and physical possibilities open to the successful practitioner. Principally however, it is to find a level of consciousness beyond the limitations presented by ‘normal’ dualistic experiences of thoughts, emotions, pain, pleasure and ignorance.

Entering consciously into the realm of sleep and dreams confronts us with a very different environment or experience than we are used to in waking. Our conscious personality had developed around the experience of life through the physical senses and thoughts. It experiences itself as part of a body – perhaps even as the body. Because of this the loss of body sensation is frequently equated with death. The personality is also used to perceiving all things other than its own body, thoughts and emotions as belonging to an exterior and separate world and beings. It is thus very dualistic in its interpretation of what is experienced, and this dualism is difficult to drop as consciousness enters what is virtually an alien world. In waking, any person or animal we perceive, we can be fairly certain they are an exterior reality. When diving beyond the level of waking consciousness, these rules do not apply. Any being one meets may very well be an objectification of, or unacknowledged aspects of, oneself.

There are other differences. In sleep the brain and senses function quite differently to what they do while awake. While dreaming the body is paralysed due to the brain inhibiting nerve impulses to the voluntary muscles. Any waking awareness or lucidity that remains, feels itself much more totally influenced by spontaneous forces, as demonstrated by the dream process itself, where enormous anxieties, sexual feelings, and spontaneous physical movements are experienced. There is nothing really dangerous about this, but unless one recognises it very clearly as an awareness of the powerful forces of the psyche and body seen without their shielding cover of dull waking consciousness, it can be extremely disturbing. The following example illustrates how someone enters such an experience, and the first levels of what may be found.

Bodiless awareness

Example: When I was sixteen I took a course in relaxation. The main exercise was to sit or lie, then limb by limb, first tense, then relax the voluntary muscles. The idea was to gradually diminish the amount of tension, so eventually one simply had the feeling of tension, reversed to the feeling of letting go. I practised this assiduously for about three months, with quite good results. Then one evening I had been out with friends to a restaurant and arrived home fairly late. I got into bed without doing my exercise of relaxation and was about to go to sleep, but thought better of it. Doing the exercise in bed I went over and over my body. Suddenly I lost all awareness or sensation of my right arm. Then my left arm disappeared in the same way. Then all bodily sense of weight, size, shape, or breathing vanished. It was almost a shock, like falling out of a small room into limitless space. Even thoughts had almost entirely gone. There seemed to be a suggestion of their action a vast distance away. Without size or shape I felt as if there were no boundaries to my being. I had never experienced anything like this before.

After that I could get to this experience almost every time I sat and used the relaxation technique. In doing so I felt I had reached an incredibly important place. I sensed it was some sort of jumping off place for untapped possibilities of the mind. I never did manage to go beyond it at that stage of my life though, and felt frustration. I felt at the time, and still do, that I had learnt how to go to sleep and yet remain awake. Anthony C.

The aim of yoga in relationship to dreams is to move through their apparent reality by remaining lucid in sleep as Anthony describes above. Perhaps another way of describing it is to see if the dream can be resolved into its constituent components. The reason being that the practitioner of traditional yoga was or is in search of the real – something that does not break down under analysis or awareness. One of the examples of this is told in yoga when the teacher asks the student to say what a house is. Gradually the student is led to see that it is a sum of parts, the bricks, the mortar, the wood, the nails, the windows, and so on. In breaking it down to its parts it disappears as a house. Similarly when human personality is looked at in the same way, it is not a stable reality, but a sum of parts. So the yogi is looking to see what lies behind the parts, until there is something indivisible. In fact yoga philosophy claims a self existent reality is discoverable as the noise of our thoughts and emotions are quietened. An example of this is described below, and excellently shows the sequence of such discovery.

Example: I had been exploring my dreams as fully as I could, and also trying to get under the surface of my mind, so to speak. Then one night I had the following dream. In it I was looking at a plant, rather like a fern. As I watched it unfolded rapidly, its leaves growing before me. At that point I suddenly became aware that there was an unfolding process in my body as long held tensions dropped away, and the dream image of the plant was an expression of this. Waking up like this while I was at the same time fully asleep was incredibly exciting. It enabled me, as it were, to look around and see what was going on. So I could be acutely aware that the dream image of the plant was not a random mental activity. The process and the image were one thing, perhaps like an electrical spark creating light. The light isn’t the electricity, but at the same time it wouldn’t be there without electrical power, and it is a visual experience of what would otherwise be invisible or unknown. The dream plant was a visual and feeling way of knowing what was occurring inside myself.

Awake in sleep – lucid dreaming

Not very long afterwards I had another dream of a similar nature. This time as I dreamt I woke up again, and because of the previous dream, realised that the things I could see around me in the dream, were projections of my own inner processes.

Once again I felt incredibly excited because it was a totally different situation to what I had ever been before. I wanted to make use of it, so I pursued the question of what of myself were the images portraying. Straight away I seemed to burst through a surface and there were no longer dream images. Instead I was directly perceiving activities in my body.

It is quite difficult to describe, but I could see that all the time the processes were on the move, like flowing streams, many of them, meeting and interacting. In particular I noticed two things. I had a chest infection at the time, probably a virus, and I could ‘see’ the processes of my body – not seen as blood flow, or nerves, but almost like flows of energy manifesting as forms – dealing with the infection. It reminded me of something quite plant like as the healing process or action circulated or flowed along delicate channels.

Then my attention turned to the area of my body corresponding with my neck. I describe it this way because my sense of my body was quite different to what it is normally. It appeared to me more, as I have said, like flows of interacting energy. In my neck there was a problem due, as I could see to an emotional attitude that was causing muscular tension. The tension was interfering with the healthy movement of activities and energy between trunk and head. It was obvious that if the blockage remained, it would gradually lead to actual physical illness. The offending emotion was what one might call pride, self righteousness or stiff necked.

Still later this was followed by a third dream that was a sort of culmination. Once more I woke up in sleep and dreams. I broke through the dream imagery to the realm of constant movement and activity which underlie the dreaming process. Once established there, recalling the previous two dreams, I wondered if there were other levels still. Perhaps this level was itself an expression of something still unmet. I immediately felt the world of change dissolve, as did my sense of self. What was left was existence but without focus, without differentiation. It wasn’t as if ‘I’ didn’t exist, but any focus had gone and ‘I’ had melted into a vast ocean or universe of awareness in which there were no opposites. It simply was, perpetual, unmoving, yet the source of all the changing world I thought of as reality.

Yet somehow, although I did not have a focused self to carry on thinking, my question was still apparently working, for there was a level beyond that which I now awoke in – still in the sleep state. ‘I’ along with the world of change existed, but at the same time as the world of change, ‘I’ was involved, merged, inextricable at one with the changeless. In this state I realised that in everyday life my mind slaughtered this wonder and presented the world to me as if everything were divided, and there was only change and death. Or that my normal self was a long way off from this changeless self, giving the feeling that one had to do something extraordinary to get to it. The fact I now saw was that in the midst of the changing and dying, the changeless and deathless abides. The rational mind finds it hard to accept such a contradiction. But I think this is because we usually see only our surface self, which lives and dies. Francis P.

This wonderfully descriptive series of experience summarises what is sought by yoga in connection with dreams. Although some authors tend to suggest all manner of wonderful powers waiting in lucidity and the meditation on dreams through yoga, I believe the jewel of the philosophy is that one can approach dreams in a manner to find ones way through the tangle of emotions, fears and concepts they present. If one can, like the story of the prince in Sleeping Beauty, cut through the ancient tangle of ones inherited ‘mind stuff’ and habits, then one can awake the princes. When this happens a marriage between the personality with its life in change and death, can realise its everlasting union with the changeless and abiding. This is ‘yoga’ as the word translates as ‘union’.

As for how this is done, there are so many experts claiming to say how one might achieve this. The truth is there is not any one way that assures a method of dropping the ignorance which veils from us the fact, as Francis says above, that we already have this union with the everlasting and changeless, or the Self as Jung calls it. Any approach to our dreams that gets us beyond mere interpretation however, and which has in it the drive to find the real within ourselves, soon brings forth dreams which begin to define our personal way of dropping the ignorance of our mind and emotions, and meeting our karma, or inherited tendencies, which veil our own Self. Another example depicts this.

Example: I had started recording my dreams and had three in a series about killing a rabbit. I had been practising yoga almost fanatically, and felt the dreams must be telling me something important to recur so quickly. I spent hours trying to analyse their meaning, but ended only with the feeling of intellectual ideas that were dry. Then I wondered what I associated with rabbits from actual experience with them. Immediately things began to flow. I had been born and raised in a rural market town. My playground was the fields. I had seen rabbits day after day, watched them at play as babies, heard them screaming in snares, killed them myself with a stick during harvesting as the combine pushed them into the middle of the wheat. So it was easy for me to see they represented soft beauty, vulnerable life. At the time I had been very cynical about my ideals regarding God, as despite all my effort I didn’t seem to find anything real. I therefore felt the killing of the rabbits was my own killing of the tender ideals I had in the growing area of myself – the wheat.

My guru the dream

Two night later I had a dream that has been my teacher ever since. In it I was on a moorland with my dog, and was leading a group of people in our common search for God. I didn’t know where this search should take us, but was walking along hoping to find the way. We came to a barbed wire fence, and on the other side a rabbit sat. I immediately sent my dog after it, as in the other dreams, to catch it. But as my dog caught it the rabbit bit him and he stood back respectfully. Now instead of a rabbit what confronted me was a magnificent hare, pink in colour. It looked straight at me and spoke, asking me where I was going. I said we were looking for God. The hare said that it would be best if I returned to my home and got on with everyday life. This really enraged me. I had read so many books each authoritatively saying what the real truth was about finding spiritual awareness, but each different to the other, or criticising the other. So I said angrily that the hare was just another of these damned authorities telling me what to do.

The hare looked at me for a moment then completely disappeared. After about five seconds it reappeared. I felt it had done this to show me that it had full control over itself, and in fact I was deeply impressed, accepting it as a master. It then said very gently something like, “What you are looking for is yourself. You cannot find this by a frantic search. You can only find it by allowing yourself to grow. Then what you seek will emerge into your experience. Do this in your everyday life.” Anthony.

In the thirty eighth yoga aphorism, Patanjali suggests that one can quieten the mind and find initiation or instruction from a master “by meditation on the knowledge gained through dream or sleep.” What Anthony experienced above in his dream has the quality written of by Patanjali. In his meeting with the hare Anthony felt he had met the quality of teaching and initiation one might get from a ‘master’ or guru. The instruction was very pertinent, although difficult to put into practise. Anthony had become dependent on his long hours of yoga and meditation. Without them he felt he would never make any spiritual progress, so he was dependent rather as one might be with a drug. Stopping the practices faced him with fears of ‘not getting anywhere’ or ‘not progressing’.

In yoga terms a person who has an abiding awareness of the Self may be called a master or guru. In the yoga teachings outlined by Patanjali, a student may be initiated by a glance from the master, by a touch, a word, or a master may appear to them in a dream or a waking vision. In regard to the above dream, Anthony might be tempted to feel that such a guru had entered his unconscious life. Through the dream he was initiated by glance and word, and of course by the dream itself. In this way the clarity or wisdom of the guru has penetrated him. It is best not to think of this in terms of telepathy or spirits meeting each other, as these are extremely clumsy concepts of this type of influence.

Another possibility put forward in yoga is that the student may have opened his or her own personality to the realm of a living master and found the influence in this way. But the most profound of the teachings are at pains to point out there is only one Self and thus only one Master or Guru. In this sense such dreams of instruction result from the dreamer having allowed their relationship with the Self to penetrate their waking personality.

Although there is a great deal made in yoga literature of how meeting a certain guru may cause a student to experience a realisation of the Self, if one penetratingly studies the literature and the experience, a teacher can show you where a door is, but it can only be opened by yourself. So ultimately you are your own initiator in relationship with the one Self. In our dreams we often accomplish this remarkable entrance into new and expanded experience, and in Anthony’s dream the hare is certainly a symbol of the Self. Truly, in dreams we meet and have union with the Self, as Francis describes above.

Another aspect of yoga that is seen in dreams with great richness is the use of symbols to synthesise immense amounts of information. For instance Jung has written at great length about the appearance of mandalas in dreams of people of Western origin. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word mandala as: “a symbolic circular figure representing the universe in various religions. Psychologically: such a symbol in a dream, representing the dreamer’s search for completeness and self-unity”.

Touching the eternal

The word itself is from the Sanskrit, and means circle. In connection with dreams it refers to any image, symbols or movement such as a dance, that is circular. Jung writes that, in regard to schizophrenics, in whose dreams and fantasies mandala type imagery is frequent, “….it is easy to see how the severe pattern imposed by a circular image of this kind compensates the disorder and confusion of the psychic state – namely, through the construction of a central point to which everything is related, or by a concentric arrangement of the disordered multiplicity and of contradictory and irreconcilable elements. This is evidently an attempt at self-healing on the part of Nature, which does not spring from conscious reflection but from instinctive impulse.” Quoted from Mandala Symbolism by C. G. Jung, published by Princeton University Press.

Dreams or fantasies containing such symbols are often of great power, and very impressive to the person experiencing them.

Example: I looked up at the wall above the bed. It was an unlikely shade of green, but what was remarkable was that on the clear expanse of the wall I could see a huge circle, alive and full of movement. My attention was riveted by this amazing circle. At its centre was an unmoving emptiness, nothingness. Yet out of this void sprung all the forms of life as plants, trees, animals and people. They were constantly emerging from the pool of emptiness, dancing in time to music. All this stream of emerging life moved weaving in time with the sound, in and out of the other each other to the periphery of the great circle. Here it turned and with equal complexity and rhythm moved back to the void. At its return it was lost, dissolved, in that unmoving emptiness. As I witnessed the whole moving circle I realised it portrayed a great truth of life. D. D.

What D. D. describes is a powerful symbol not of just one aspect of himself or his life. The symbol encompasses birth life and death. It portrays origins and goals. It is personal in that D. D. can identify his own existence as being part of a vast connected movement of life and creation, and yet the symbol also refers to life in a universal sense. Such a symbol therefore incorporates vast amounts of vision or information. These transforming symbols need not be in the form of a mandala as with the circle in the example.

Example: “I walked past a married couple who were walking up the hill too. As I passed I heard them say something about a shepherd. Looking up the hill I saw the sheep, then The Shepherd. A beautiful aura of many colours surrounded The Shepherd. I looked and felt joy and exuberance rise in me, and I ran to the couple saying it was THE SHEPHERD.” Brian C.

This dream shows how the transforming symbol can be in the form of a human being. In Anthony’s dream the hare has the same sort of quality. In fact the transforming symbol can take any form. In talking about his dream, Brian said that being near the shepherd was so wonderful it is a feeling he often returns to when he needs to feel love.

The power of such symbols in connection with yoga is because they are a source of power and connection. The moving mandala D. D. saw was used by him for many years as the subject of his meditation. He also used it as a focus for deeper exploration of his own psyche. As such it acted as a form of ready made link between waking consciousness and the most profound levels of the unconscious or the Self. As Jung suggests, the transforming symbol can be a healing influence, the connection through which the healing and integrating power of the Changeless or the Self, enters and helps to integrate and give wisdom to the conscious personality. Without a personal transforming symbol one would have to use a ready made and cultural one such as the Cross, a Tibetan yantra or an Amerindian sand painting. But these ready made symbols often lack the personal and deeply felt experience and inner associations occurring in a dreamt or fantasised symbol. It is the sort of difference between reading about something and understanding it, and having a personal experience of it. Our own dreamt transforming symbol gives us personal experience of what it is like to know our life as part of a whole, or to know the melting of personal consciousness into the whole. Such experience usually melts like a snowflake in the sun. It’s power to transform is lost in the fragmentary experience of waking life. But through returning in some way to the memory of the symbol, we can continue to allow its latent power to flow into our waking life.

Dreams can act as our guru in the practice of yoga in any of its forms. For instance one of the reason one might seek a deeply perceptive guru is for detailed aid and advice in the practice of ones meditation or spiritual disciplines. It is a very rare guru indeed who can match the depth of insight and universal wisdom, coupled with intimate knowledge of ones personal history, that dreams portray. There are many examples that could be given of this. But three will suffice to illustrate the use and results of using dreams to guide ones yoga practice. Anthony, whose ‘hare’ dream has already been quoted, was practising physical yoga as well as various forms of meditation. He could not observe obvious signs of progress but wondered if there was any influence at all on the subtler levels of his being. Turning to his dreams, he found confirmation.

Example: Before I started my serious yoga practice my wife and I had been talking about whether there were any ghosts in the house. That night I dreamt I sat in bed and challenged any ghosts to show themselves, certain I could handle them. There was no response, and feeling rather smug I lay down to go to sleep. Just then the door creaked open, and in walked two black men who looked as if they had climbed out of an old grave. Their flesh was falling off them and they were blank eyed. I was terrified and made the sign of the cross and said a few holy words to ward them off. It worked and they went, but not for long. This time all my signs and prayers didn’t get rid of them and they put their dead hands around my throat strangling me. I woke screaming and frightened.

Gaining mental strength through yoga

Some years later I dreamt of these two black men again, this time on an underground train. They were no longer zombies and were well dressed. One of them still went for my throat though. I caught his hands and wrestled with him, pulling his hands down, overpowering him. As I did so I realised this was what yoga had done – given me the strength to meet this attack.

After another long period of time another dream came in which I was sitting with this black man in a circle with other people meditating. We were all opening ourselves to the spiritual power. Suddenly the power took hold of my whole body and moved me around the room, along with the chair I was sitting in. Then I experienced it moving my mouth and vocal organs, speaking through me. The word flowed through me talking to the group about the spiritual life. Afterward the black man came to me and asked if I had really been moved, or was I acting. I said as far as I knew it had been spontaneous, not acted. He said he would like to surrender to that same influence with me.

What I gathered from these dreams was that originally I had repressed parts of my own natural sexual feelings, shown as the black men. They were dead because I had killed this part of myself as a teenager But I was deeply frightened of these urges because of what had happened in adolescence. Therefore, in my meditation, in trying to enter more fully into myself, I always turned back through fear, because in meeting more of myself, I met these black men – my own sexual urges. My practice of yoga had gradually helped me find strength in meeting this part of myself, show in the second dream. There was also a change going on in my unconscious – the underground train – as the men were healthy and well dressed.
The last dream of the series shows me opening my life to the influence of the spirit. There is a lot more wholeness in my life now as the people were all sitting in a circle. Now the black man is there with me without conflict. That area of my life is now ready to be changed and healed by the power flowing into my conscious life by being able to accept myself more wholly. Anthony.

The word yoga is usually translated to mean union, or to unite. The unity is between ones individual life and the universal existence that yoga claims we are all a part of. The shift from a sense of isolated and independent physical and psychological existence, to that of union with the one life usually occurs in stages. There are classic phases of it. An obvious part of these changes is what Anthony has describes as ‘being able to accept myself more wholly’. Considering that as Francis’ experiences suggest, one is only apparently isolated from the changeless due to ones dependence on sensory impressions, the acceptance of oneself in total is the whole journey. To find oneself is to find the Self. On the way to this wholeness one may pass through the most extraordinary experiences, one of which is a death and rebirth, as the self dependent on a limited view of itself in the world dies, and a wider view emerges.

No matter where one is on this journey toward oneself, dreams are there as a constant guide, spanning as they do the distance between the one great life, and our tiny individual existence. Respect is due to the Guru. See: the self under archetypes; compensation theory; lucidity; mandala; paralysis; movements during sleep; spiritual life in dreams; reincarnation and dreams.

Copyright © 1999-2010 Tony Crisp | All rights reserved