This is part one of a three-part series on cultivating a dream yoga practice.
I am standing on a stage introducing Eric Clapton—who is very late. This particular night he will be performing Metallica songs for a group of people standing in someone’s front yard. As he sits down at the drums to begin, I’m worried. It’s really very late for Eric Clapton to be playing on a Tuesday, but who am I to kick him off stage? But there’s something else bothering me…
Doesn’t Eric Clapton play the guitar, not the drums? And why is he here at midnight on a Tuesday? And—more to the point—why am I here? And then it dawns on me… I’m dreaming. I’m dreaming!
And then the fun begins.
Shall I: a) sit down and meditate, b) fly to the moon, c) ask Eric Clapton for career advice, or d) put my hands on my head and heal my migraines?
This is the practice of lucid dreaming (or dream yoga in Buddhism)—where we become awake within our dreams, and the conscious mind gets to play with the unconscious mind for spiritual advancement, self-discovery, healing, and fun.
“…one minute of meditation in a lucid dream is the equivalent of a 30-day retreat” – Charlie Morley
For centuries Toltecs, Tantrics, Sufis, Gnostic Christians, shamans, Aborigines, and Tibetan Buddhists have practiced lucid dreaming. It is only recently, however, that the scientific community has started to accept—and embrace—the practice as being more than the “wild” claims of spiritual traditions.
In the late 1970s and 1980s scientific studies began to emerge confirming that there is a dream state that differs from REM—and one that looks as if dreamers may be awake while asleep. Since then, scientists and psychologists have begun to explore lucid dreaming and its potential for altering the waking experiences of the mind and body. Could a lucid dreaming practice reduce PTSD in returning soldiers, or help end addictions? Some scientists suggest yes. Dream yogis say absolutely. Could it also improve performance in the workplace or for athletes, dancers, and musicians? It’s a possibility say scientists. Practitioners say it’s a reality.
Waking Up in the Dream
Charlie Morley is an unlikely world-renowned teacher of dream yoga. He was a hip-hop rapper and managed a breakdancing company that worked with disadvantaged children when he came to the practice. While he had had lucid dreams as a child and during his teens, his experience of them had mostly been unintentional and purely recreational. “In those years I had no idea dream yoga was a high spiritual practice. To be honest, I was just trying to practice lucid dreaming in order to have sex, and to fly about. Plus it was better than most of my psychedelic experiences,” he says.
But by age 19, when Charlie became a Buddhist, he began practicing dream yoga in earnest as part of his spiritual path. Six years later, at just 25 years of age, he was authorized by Lama Yeshe Rinpoche to become a teacher of the practice. Since then he has traveled the world learning from others and teaching the techniques and benefits of lucid dreaming.
Why Get Lucid?
Most of us will experience a lucid dream at least once in our lives. Becoming awake within a nightmare and deliberately waking ourselves up is an experience shared by many. Another common experience is a fleeting realization of being in a dream.
Dream yoga, and its practice, seeks to bring this lucidity to every dream—and to maintain it. Through practice the dreamer can in fact choose how to act or react within a dream for extended periods of time and at will. “We have five dream cycles a night, and each has multiple dream sequences. Of those, we may remember just one dream every now and again, and very rarely will we become lucid. That’s a lot of our time spent in dreams of which we are completely unaware of—but with practice we can change that,” says Charlie.
But of what use is to become lucid in a dream? According to practitioners of dream yoga, the lucid dream is where the conscious mind gets not only to explore but also to use the unconscious mind. Given that some neuroscientists suggest that as much as 95 percent of our brain activity is unconscious, a whole new world opens up.
The Dream as a Path
There are a myriad of things to do once there, but Charlie points to four main uses. The first is healing. Be it emotional or physical, many lucid dreamers claim to have healed themselves of unhealthy thought patterns or physical ailments by working in their dreams. “Say you have a phobia of spiders, and have a dream about them. If you are able to become lucid, you would realize that the spider cannot harm you at all—because it’s just a dream. As a result maybe you play with the spider or ignore it. But the brain cannot discern between a ‘dream’ spider and a ‘real’ spider. So by practicing in a dream to accept spiders, we are also reprogramming the mind to release our phobia when we then wake up,” explains Charlie. New neural pathways are essentially formed.
Receiving advice is another practice to explore while lucid in sleep. Imagine being able to ask a question to the vast intelligence of your unconscious mind—that enormous library of experience and study—and receive an answer.
As a spiritual pathway lucid dreaming is designed to allow the individual to wake up to the illusion, and to prepare for the realms beyond death. “In Buddhism, dream yoga is an opportunity to explore emptiness, and to explore beyond the mind,” says Charlie. “Meditation is how we may do this in waking life, but the Tibetan Buddhists say just one minute of meditation in a lucid dream is the equivalent of a 30-day retreat.”
And, finally, a dreaming practice simply makes going to bed fun. Who wouldn’t want to fly around, walk through walls, and speak to interesting people every night?
Through this three-part series Charlie will set us on the path towards being able to have—or develop—lucid dreams. He’ll also share his findings and teachings on how to use dream yoga for self-healing and for a deeper spiritual practice. So here is the homework for this week…
1. Keep a Dream Diary
“Start small and see if you can remember just one dream a night—or even an image—and jot down the main notes about the dream immediately upon waking. This practice starts to train the mind to become more conscious of the dream state,” says Charlie. It also will serve for our second step towards lucid dreaming next week in recognizing dream patterns.
2. Work With an Affirmation
Before falling asleep, repeat this affirmation: “Tonight, I remember my dreams. I have excellent dream recall.”
3. Prepare a Calm Environment
Avoid over-stimulation before bedtime and definitely avoid drugs. “The best thing to do is meditate for about 20 minutes before bed to get the mind prepared, but at the very least commit to winding down before bedtime, and turning off the phone,” says Charlie.
4. Increase Vitamin B Intake
Start increasing an intake of foods rich in vitamin B, such as leafy greens, bananas, and avocados. “If you’re into green juices, try drinking them closer to bedtime than to breakfast,” suggests Charlie. Studies show that folic acid and vitamin B6 increase likelihood of lucidity.
5. Throat Chakra Meditation and Yoga
The throat chakra is the dream chakra in Tibetan Buddhism, and so to direct energy to this area as you are falling asleep or just before will raise your lucidity level. “Interestingly the brain stem is located at roughly the same place as the throat chakra, and neurologically it’s the brain stem that plays a large role in creating our dreams,” points out Charlie. So this week try incorporating throat chakra meditations or yoga asanas that work on the throat chakra such as Matsyasana, Ardha Matsyendrasana, and shoulder stand into your regular yoga practice.
Join us next week for part two of the series when we will be looking at lucid dreaming for self-healing, and further techniques to build a dream yoga practice.
Helen Avery is a Section Editor at Wanderlust Media, working on the Vitality and Wisdom channels on wanderlust.com. She is a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, minister-in-training, and full-time dog walker of Millie.