A Hindu view of sleep and dreams, with insights from rishis and experts in ayurveda and modern medical science
By Panshula Ganeshan, Chicago; with Research by Mayuresh Visswanathan, San Diego
Sleep and dreams are a psychic reservoir of restoration, power and mystery. Like waves crashing upon the shore, then receding, our individual awareness vacillates between wakefulness and unconscious or semiconscious dream states. The Mandukya Upanishad—the twelve-verse Vedic masterpiece which Adi Shankaracharya’s paramaguru, Gaudapada, called “the essence of all Vedanta”—outlines four states of consciousness: waking (jagrat); dreaming (svapna); deep sleep (shushupti); and a fourth state (turiya), which is witness to them all. Sages have proclaimed that deep contemplation upon this scripture can itself lead to enlightenment, owing to its philosophical poignancy.
As an individual awareness, we experience the cycle of waking, dreaming and deep sleep; but the ground of this experience, the Mandukya explains, is the supreme consciousness which is beyond and witness to them all. Thus the sages famously propounded, “Atman is Brahman”—meaning the individual soul, when examined, is really the supreme consciousness itself. The focus of the Mandukya Upanishad ultimately is upon AUM. It elucidates how each vibrational segment of this mantra corresponds to one of the four conditions of consciousness, and the silence after the mantra’s utterance corresponding with turiya, the timeless, causeless resting place.
The rishis saw the waking, dream and deep sleep states as part of a continuum of consciousness. One’s individual awareness experiences and identifies with each state in turn, mistaking “I” for the physical body, or for the astral body in the case of dream experience. Raja-siddha yogi Sivaya Subramuniyaswami (founder of Hinduism Today) explained, “Pure awareness never sleeps. This mercury, mirror-like substance travels here and there, guided by the will of the perceiver. It is the venerable eye of the purusha. It is constantly aware, from the moment of the creation of the soul; and at the soul’s final merger in Siva it experiences super, super, superconscious totality.” With awareness thus identified as the individuated aspect of consciousness that travels through various states of mind, it is easier to see that the waking and dreaming states are one and the same thing. They are real when experienced, but ultimately illusory in relation to Brahman, the supreme consciousness.
Three Worlds and Five Bodies
In Vedic-Agamic cosmology, there are three worlds of existence. The Bhuloka is the earth plane, which we experience through the physical body. The Antarloka (astral plane) is experienced through the subtle astral body; this corresponds with the mental, emotional and pranic koshas (bodies/sheaths) which surround the soul body. The Antarloka is known to have higher and lower realms, thus allowing for a wide range of experiences—everything from confusing, subconscious, nonsensical dream scenarios and encounters with disembodied souls lost in “hellish” states, in the lower realms, to life-transforming visions of ancestors, Gods and gurus in the higher. The Third World (Brahmaloka or Karanaloka) is the causal plane of light and blessedness. There are countless stories of artistic and scientific breakthroughs stemming from higher dream states in the Third World. The Indian math genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan, famously reported that his groundbreaking formulas were given to him in dreams by his family devata.
Subramuniyaswami’s mystical insights mirror revelations in the Mandukya Upanishad while adding unparalleled esoteric detail. He reflects, “Why do we sleep? The mental body, which we dream in, is within the astral body and functions through the astral brain of that body. Through certain hours of the day during the waking state, the astral body uses the physical body, and the mental body works through the astral-body brain and the brain of the physical body. There is also another body to be considered, and that is the soul body [anandamaya kosha]. This body is what we touch into at least once through the sleeping state, and that gives not only a release of the karmas, often karmas that have been concluded, but also a new flush of energy into the astral, mental and physical bodies. So, we touch into the Divine through sleep.”
Sleep as Spiritual Discipline
Most of us have a robust dream life. Sometimes we experience high degrees of lucidity while dreaming; but for most dreams, we hardly remember them at all. Subramuniyaswami provides insight as to why this might be: “We do not usually remember our astral experiences, because the astral brain and the physical brain are of two different rates of vibration. Therefore, when we return to the physical body after being in the astral body during sleep, any knowledge that we have gained on the astral plane begins to seep through into the physical plane during a period of four days afterwards. This knowledge accumulates, and we call it an inner knowing. Ideas seem to come to us from within, but actually we did learn and discuss them previously on the astral plane.”
Subramuniyaswami, who was trained by several gifted occultists prior to his samadhi and initiation by his satguru in Sri Lanka, approached dream life as a spiritual discipline, just as he approached waking life. He said the willpower we use in our daily activities is the same willpower we bring into our dream life. For instance, the willpower that someone might use to do five extra pushups is the same will that is used to fly or jump in a lucid dream or go deep into the inner planes of consciousness. It is the same will, energy and awareness commanding the astral/dream body, just as it animates the physical body in the waking state. For Subramuniyaswami, sleep was “a cleanser for the subconscious mind,” but it was also, for meditating yogis, a time for gaining higher knowledge which would later filter through into the conscious mind as intuition. For this reason, he taught his devotees to aim for the deepest levels of the astral world and to prepare for sleep systematically. He recommended pranayama, hatha yoga and japa prior to sleeping to help in depolarizing prana from the conscious mind. He was also adamant that his devotees settle all disputes before going to bed; he said issues “go to seed” during sleep. Interestingly, this view was later corroborated in the journal Nature Communications, where researchers Liu, Y., et al., reported that after sleep “consolidated aversive memories retain their emotional reactivity and become more resistant to suppression.”
Granted that sleep is a biological need for all humans, Hindu rishis throughout time have approached it also as a tool for enlightenment, known as yoga nidra. Dr. Vasant Lad, renowned for his expertise in ayurveda, expounds upon yoga nidra as a Vedic science of psychic sleep: “Because deep sleep is a way of being close to the inner source of being, when you sleep with awareness and maintain that awareness in the deep sleep state, you will become enlightened; that kind of sleep becomes a form of samadhi. Sleep is not samadhi, but samadhi is like sleep when it occurs with total awareness. In that awareness, there is no judgment, no criticism, no likes or dislikes. In this awareness, there is a complete cessation of ego, because to some extent we forget our ego or identity in a deep sleep. Hence, the ayurvedic approach to sleep is one of the gateways to becoming enlightened. In deep sleep, even a king and a beggar are the same. The moment they wake up, they become king and beggar again. This is due to identification.” (See sidebar on page 66 for more on yoga nidra.)
Ayurvedic View of Dreams
The ayurvedic lexicon deals with the three fundamental qualities of prakriti, primal nature, called the gunas:sattva is purity, peacefulness, illumination; rajas is passion, activity; and tamas is darkness, inertia. These three qualities govern awareness as it goes through waking, dreaming and deep sleep states. Lad clarifies, “Jagrat, the wakeful state, functions with more of a sattva quality, which is clarity and purity. Sattva creates individual consciousness and the concept of an observer. The moment we become conscious of consciousness, it creates a center—this is the observer. This observer projects outside of itself because of the rajasic quality. The movement of observation is rajas, and it relates to the dream state. When awareness flows from one point to another, it becomes attention, and that flow of attention is perception. Perception is the process of rajas carrying awareness through the doors of perception (the senses) to meet with the objective world, which is tamas. The visible world is an expression of tamas, which is inertia, matter. Tamas relates to the state of deep sleep.”
Evolutes from the gunas are the five elements, which are governed by the three doshas in the human body: vata rules space and air, pitta rules fire and water, and kapha rules water and earth. In ayurveda, prakriti describes one’s basic constitution (a combination of three doshas); whereas vikriti describes the current state of disease or imbalance of those doshas. Dr. Lad shares, “The nature of sleep varies according to a person’s prakriti and vikriti doshas. For a vata person, sleep is light and interrupted. Pitta people find it difficult to go to sleep, but once they fall sleep, they have relatively sound sleep. They are intermediate sleepers. Kapha people have deep, prolonged sleep.”
Ayurveda classifies dreams according to the doshas and also recognizes their influence upon the different dream states. “In these dreaming states, systemic vata dosha may activate prana vayu “breath/vitality wind), systemic pitta dosha may stimulate prana vayu, or systemic kapha dosha may disturb prana vayu, leading to three different categories of dreams.”
Dealing with Insomnia
Ayurveda also classifies doshic types of insomnia and offers holistic ways of managing the disorder through lifestyle changes, and practices such as abhyanga (oil massage) and/or the application of bhringaraj oil to the soles of the feet.
Dr. Rudolph Tanzi, a Harvard-trained epigeneticist famous for finding a link between insomnia and Alzheimer’s, explains in Super Genes, which he co-authored with Deepak Chopra: “In the tradition of ayurveda, insomnia is rooted in an imbalance of vata, one of the three doshas or basic physiological forces. Vata, which is linked to biological motion, causes all manner of restless, irregular behavior. When it is out of balance, people find it hard to keep to a routine in diet, digestion, sleep and work. Mood swings and anxiety are related to vata. Without asking anyone to adopt an ayurvedic perspective, we think it’s helpful to see that vata links mind and body in a very realistic way. Appetite, mood and energy levels are all thrown out of balance when sleep—a natural remedy for vata imbalance—is deprived.” To get a better view of how sleep and vata dosha can go out of balance together, see Tanzi’s chart on the next page.
Dr. Tanzi recommends that to take “advantage of the vata-sleep connection, you should first recommit to getting a good night’s sleep. Letting a full 8 hours turn into 5 or 6 is a slippery slope,” he says. “If you have a problem with insomnia, either finding it hard to fall asleep or waking up during the night, don’t turn to pills—sleep aids of every sort are not the equivalent of establishing a natural sleep rhythm.”
“The vata-sleep connection links most of the choices to conventional insomnia advice in Western medicine,” Tanzi confirms. “Only a few things need further explanation. To begin with, the overlooked things that keep many people awake are too much light in the bedroom, too much noise, and minor aches and pains that escape notice until you start to go to sleep. If you have the kind of sleeplessness that’s typified by waking up in the middle of the night or too early in the morning, attend to these three factors as first-line remedies.”
Blue light emanating from computer screens, phone screens and LED lights after the sun has gone down has also been shown to disrupt sleep. It does this by suppressing melatonin, a hormone that induces sleep and regulates the circadian rhythm. This phenomenon has been dubbed the “Blue Light Problem” and has substantial scientific evidence to support it. Consider visiting bluelightatnight.com to begin your own research.
Tanzi writes of sleep rhythms, “In sleep research terminology there are “larks” (early risers) and “owls” (late risers) whose sleep habits are set for life. How such habits get set isn’t known, and this may be a fruitful area for epigenetics to explore, since it’s through epigenetic marks that genetic predisposition intersects with experience. Disrupting someone’s natural sleep rhythm is known to have widespread implications for the body. Workers on the night shift, for example, never fully adapt to their unnatural schedule of waking and sleeping. About 8.6 million Americans work the night shift or rotate shifts, and they are at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. Since the same conditions are associated with inflammation, there could be a strong link there.”
Tanzi points out, “The tendency to lose sleep as we age has a vata link, since according to ayurveda, this dosha increases with age. It’s prudent not to take sleep for granted, even if you have always enjoyed good, sound sleep. Adopt healthy habits early and you will prevent future problems. Lack of sleep has been associated with triggering Alzheimer’s. Lack of sleep is also associated with high blood pressure, which tends to increase by the decade as we age.” ∏π
Interview with Dr. Brandon Westover
Dr. Westover captures data from new brain monitoring tools and uses artificial intelligence to research and improve medical care for patients with brain injury, seizures, sleep disorders, etc., and to develop closed-loop control technology for precision control of anesthesia in the ICU.
HT: Why do we sleep?
A: Because we’re tired! No, it’s a good question, and not completely settled yet. There’s evidence for at least two reasons, cleansing and memory. It was recently discovered that while you are awake and your brain is working hard, thinking about things, the cells in your brain, the neurons, actually swell. They get larger. Then, when you go to sleep (or if you get anesthesia for a surgery), the cells shrink a little bit, creating space between them. The cerebrospinal fluid can then pass easily through your brain tissue, washing out some of the waste products that accumulate during your waking hours. That small increase in space causes a dramatic increase in the rate at which the brain can flush out waste products. The deepest stage of sleep, the so-called non-REM Stage Three, or slow wave sleep, seems to be most helpful for that.
HT: How does sleep affect memory?
A: Sleep also seems important in helping with memory consolidation. Different rhythms arise during different parts of sleep. During a light to medium-deep (“non-REM Stage Two”) sleep, the brain produces slow waves punctuated by little rhythms, called the spindle oscillation, that turn on and off, on and off. We think these help move short-term memories into the long-term memory part of the brain. People whose slow waves are disrupted, for example, with anesthesia or certain sleeping medicines, have performed worse on cognitive tests in the morning. They’re not as refreshed as they would have been, and they don’t remember things as well as if they had slept normally. So sleep is believed to be very important for memory consolidation—transfering short-term memories into long-term memory, and rehearsing things you did, maybe skills you learned while you were awake. But though we have evidence for these things, they’re not fully proven yet.
HT: What has changed in sleep research?
A: People are starting to recognize that healthy sleep is just as important as exercise or eating well, maybe more important. I am trying to help hospitalized patients make it through with their brain health intact as much as possible. When you have a kidney problem or a heart problem, it accelerates what happens in life. People might get confused while they’re in the hospital, even when they came in with no brain problem. In the past people paid no attention to the brain; they just assumed patients got completely better after the primary medical problem was corrected. But during the last decade we’ve found that if you don’t take good care of the brain, it does not completely recover from this confusion. Some people have impairments as a result of their critical illness that last for a year or more. We are realizing hospitals should routinely monitor the brain as well as the heart and lungs, in order to keep people’s brains from getting sick. One of the important factors turns out to be sleep. A typical hospital stay still involves beeping noises, lights on at all hours, and people waking you up all the time. We are barely starting to see that’s a problem and address these issues so we can provide better care for the sick.
HT: What do you regard as the most exciting new direction for sleep research?
A: I’m excited about our own research into sleep monitoring tools. These help us figure out what things really work to improve the quality of your sleep and your long-term brain health span. You’d like your health span to match your lifespan, so your brain is functioning well as long as you’re alive. Objective sleep measurement should improve our ability to study exercise, meditation and other factors, to learn which things work and which things don’t.
HT: What do you measure to test brain health?
A: The brief answer is that we measure more than five hundred little features of brain activity. None of them by itself is good enough to make overall predictions; your brain activity is not simple. One of the easier things to explain is the power of the signal—the amplitude of the little electrical oscillations in the signal. A very flat electrical signal would have zero power or very little power. Roughly speaking, a healthy signal oscillates a lot and is highly variable.
Each waking or sleeping state is characterised by certain healthy rhythms. For example, when you’re awake, if you close your eyes and just stay calm, there should be, near the back of your head, a beautiful sine wave signal. As you get older, or if you get sick, the amplitude of that alpha rhythm will get smaller, very low amplitude peak to peak. Also, the rhythm at which it oscillates will go from say ten cycles per second down to a lower frequency. Maybe seven cycles per second.
Similarly, one of the Stage Two patterns is called the spindle oscillation. These are little rhythms that turn on for a couple of seconds and then turn off, and on and off. These are involved in memory consolidation. They, too, will tend to get smaller and lower in frequency with disease or age. The slow waves provide a third example; their amplitude will get smaller. It’s easy to imagine how these are related to the important functions of sleep we spoke of earlier.
The Mystery of Sleep
Modern science has not yet definitively explained why humans need sleep. But as it gains understanding of the importance of sleep and sleep rhythms, it resonates more and more closely with ayurveda’s holistic approach. It is clear that we should make any necessary lifestyle adjustments to ensure getting enough sleep, preferably at regular times. A Hindu view might propose ultimately that sleep and dreams are necessary for the biology and psychology of the individual, and that dreams can be of many different types and reflect the energies of many different states of consciousness.
The Western sciences have barely touched upon the esoteric treasures in the Hindu understanding of the inner worlds and dream life. As we evolve, mastery of sleep becomes a vehicle for spiritual evolution and a channel for communcation with the devas and our own superconsciousness. The Mandukya Upanishad, however, reminds the contemplative Hindu that always and forever, whether awake, dreaming or in deep sleep, we are already at home in Brahman.
The Mandukya Upanishad Speaks of Our States of Mind
1. Aum! This Imperishable Word is the whole of this visible universe. Its explanation is as follows: What has become, what is becoming, what will become—verily, all of this is Aum. And what is beyond these three states of the world of time—that, too, verily, is OM.
2. All this, verily, is Brahman. The Self is Brahman. This Self has four quarters.
3. The first quarter is Vaishvanara. Its field is the waking state. Its consciousness is outward-turned. It is seven-limbed and nineteen-mouthed. It enjoys gross objects.
4. The second quarter is taijasa. Its field is the dream state. Its consciousness is inward-turned. It is seven-limbed and nineteen-mouthed. It enjoys subtle objects.
5. The third quarter is prajna, where one asleep neither desires anything nor beholds any dream: that is deep sleep. In this field of dreamless sleep, one becomes undivided, an undifferentiated mass of consciousness, consisting of bliss and feeding on bliss. His mouth is consciousness.
6. This is the Lord of All; the Omniscient; the Indwelling Controller; the Source of All. This is the beginning and end of all beings.
7. That is known as the fourth quarter: neither inward-turned nor outward-turned consciousness, nor the two together; not an undifferentiated mass of consciousness; neither knowing, nor unknowing; invisible, ineffable, intangible, devoid of characteristics, inconceivable, indefinable, its sole essence being the consciousness of its own Self; the coming to rest of all relative existence; utterly quiet; peaceful; blissful: without a second: this is the Atman, the Self; this is to be realized.
8. This identical Atman, or Self, in the realm of sound is the syllable Aum, the above-described four quarters of the Self being identical with the components of the syllable, and the components of the syllable being identical with the four quarters of the Self. The components of the syllable are A, U, M.
9. Vaishvanara, whose field is the waking state, is the first sound, A, because this encompasses all, and because it is the first. He who knows thus, encompasses all desirable objects; he becomes the first.
10. Taijasa, whose field is the dream state, is the second sound, U, because this is an excellence, and contains the qualities of the other two. He who knows thus, exalts the flow of knowledge and becomes equalized; in his family there will be born no one ignorant of Brahman.
11. Prajna, whose field is deep sleep, is the third sound, M, because this is the measure, and that into which all enters. He who knows thus, measures all and becomes all.
12. The fourth is soundless: unutterable, a quieting down of all relative manifestations, blissful, peaceful, non-dual. Thus, Aum is the Atman, verily. He who knows thus, merges his self in the Self—yea, he who knows thus. Aum Shantih, Shantih, Shantih.
Stages of Sleep
In Western & Ayurvedic Terms
Chart by Dr. Vasant Lad
|Stages||Time Period||What happens|
|1||5-10 minutes||Theta waves. Gradual cessation of prana vata.|
|2||10-25 minutes||Rapid, rhythmic brain waves. Temperature drops, breathing, and heart rate slow down. Cessation of sadhaka pitta, the fire of motivation.|
|3||20-30 minutes||Delta waves. Slow brain activity. Deep sleep induced by tarpaka kapha, a brain secretion associated with bliss and total contentment.|
|4||20-30 minutes||Delta waves. Governed by tarpaka kapha. However, prana may become active, causing bedwetting or sleepwalking.|
|5||Initial occurrence can be very short but each cycle becomes longer, lasting up to an hour as sleep progresses||Rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, which indicates activation of prana. This is the dream stage. Respiration becomes faster and repressed emotions activate, causing some to have dreams of sex in this stage.|
Yoga Nidra—Conscious Sleep
Yoga nidra is defined as yogic sleep, but in practice it names a self-guided meditation that aims to systematically disengage awareness from the body and thinking mind. The practice has been duplicated and modified by countless practitioners through the ages, but the basic process is relatively uniform. Assuming a sleeping position, lying comfortably on the back, the practitioner goes through a simple diaphragmatic breathing practice along with a body scan, moving awareness to focus (nyasa) on one body part or energetic center at a time, starting with the feet and going to the top of the head, using auto-suggestion to relax and gradually let go into gravity and space. The aim in yoga nidra is to skim as closely as possible to the most restful and rejuvenating place in consciousness without falling asleep.
According to Indian tantric knowledge, one hour of yoga nidra is equivalent to four hours of sleep, and performing yoga nidra before sleeping allows for a more restful and deeper sleep. A person in deep yogic sleep has the ability to learn an abundance of information, such as languages, faster, or to gain spiritual knowledge of scripture, because it bypasses their conscious state of mind and goes directly into their unconscious state of mind. Practicing yoga nidra allows one to refocus their mental and physical strength into one specific area or direction. Doing so allows a yogi to rechannel their willpower into a single-pointed focus in order to make maximal spiritual progress.
In a world of information overload and multitasking, taking a “yoga break” to relax has become a modern fad and an economic opportunity. Teachers are offering expensive programs, and for a vacation you can book a stay at a yoga nidra retreat where you can receive guidance and rejuvenation.
The the first and definitive work on the practice is Yoga Nidra, published by Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar in 1977. Some say the process of resting nyasa goes back before recorded history. Tibetan Buddhism has an offspring called “dream yoga.” It has migrated to the West, with Stephen LaBerge, who made “lucid dreaming” famous. Dr. Richard Miller openly acknowledges “the ancient teachings of yoga nidra,” but took out a copyright on modern methods. Seewww.irest.org. The US Army Surgeon General has listed iRest© Yoga Nidra as a Tier 1 approach for addressing Pain Management in Military Care.
Our Sleep Is Disturbed by:
Staying up late
Physical aches & pains
Stress and worry
Excessive light in room
Sleep Training in the Military
According to sharon ackman, a writer for veterans and the military, “The US Navy Pre-Flight School developed a scientific method to fall asleep day or night, in any conditions, in under two minutes. After six weeks of practice, 96 percent of pilots could fall asleep in two minutes or less—even after drinking coffee, with machine gunfire being played in the background.” Ackman shares the military’s systematic technique, which is excerpted here:
In a process similar to yoga nidra’s nyasa, starting from the head and working one’s way down the body to the legs and feet, the hopeful sleeper is enjoined to first slow their rate of breathing and relax the face, forehead, tongue, cheeks and jaw. Although one’s eyes may be shut, Ackman warns they may still not be relaxed. Ackman claims that “when you relax your face and let your eye sockets go limp, you signal to the rest of your body it’s time to unwind.” The face, she explains, is like one’s emotional epicenter, and it is the key to the relaxation process.
Moving on from the face, the shoulders and neck are targeted next. Let the shoulders drop as low as possible, allowing the muscles in the back of the neck to completely relax. Maintain a rhythm of deep inhalations and slow exhalations, letting go of all tension. After the shoulders and neck are relaxed, Ackman suggests moving on to the arms. Start with the dominant side, letting the upper arm go limp, then the forearm, and finally the fingers and hand. Repeat this process on the other side when finished. Ackman suggests that if a body part resists relaxing, “tense it first, then let it go loose.”
The same process is repeated with the legs, starting with the dominant thigh, calf, ankle and foot. The last step is to let go of all thoughts for 10 seconds. “When you’re physically relaxed and your mind is still for at least 10 seconds,” Ackman reports, “you’ll be asleep.”