The wind was whipping through my hair as my body zipped above the honking taxis, glittering lights, and throngs of people strolling along Fifth Avenue. It was the middle of the night, and my body was literally flying above New York City.
I was a freshman in college at NYU, and I knew I was having quite the dream. What I didn’t know back then was that my dreams could become both a playground and a launching pad for psychological and even spiritual growth.
“We spend 25 percent of our sleeping time in REM sleep—in the dream state,” says Andrew Holecek, spiritual teacher and author of Dream Yoga: Illuminating Your Life Through Lucid Dreaming and the Tibetans Yogas of Sleep. “That’s about one month a year. If you think about it, dreaming is a form of night school. If you want to learn about yourself in the most direct, concentrated, and uncensored way, work with your dreams.”
While there’s unquestionable value in writing down your dreams and interpreting them for insight into your hidden fears or desires, Andrew says dreams can offer more than insight. Lucid dreaming can be used to enhance mental or physical performance. “Lucid dreaming is being fully aware of the fact that you’re dreaming while you’re still dreaming,” Andrew explains. “It was first dismissed as impossible scientifically, but it’s been unequivocally verified.”
According to Kelly Bulkeley, co-author of Lucid Dreaming: New Perspectives on Consciousness in Sleep, between 58 and 70 percent of people will have at least one lucid dream in their lifetime. (An often-cited German study found that number to be closer to 51 percent.) But for most of us, lucid dreams don’t happen regularly. “Unless you’re a spiritual master—all of their dreams are lucid,” Andrew quips.
If you can begin to induce lucid dreams, however, you can use them to practice almost any skill you’re looking to improve—public speaking, musical ability, athletic skills, and more. Because the brain can’t tell the difference between something that’s dreamed, visualized, or experienced, practicing your golf swing in a dream is like practicing it on an actual golf course, Andrew says. “If you do a math problem in a dream, the left hemisphere of the brain is activated just as if you were doing it in the waking state,” he explains. “Anything that requires rehearsal, you can do in a lucid dream, and it will benefit your performance.”
There are a host of daytime and nighttime induction practices to increase the likelihood of having a lucid dream, but here are three of Andrew’s favorites:
Intention. “If you set the intention of getting up at 4:00 am to catch a flight,” Andrew says, “you can wake up without an alarm clock. It’s the same with a lucid dream. Before you go to sleep, intend to have one.”
Meditation. “Meditation is a daily practice of lucidity,” Andrew notes, adding that lucidity is a code word for awareness. “Meditators have more lucid dreams than those who don’t meditate, because they’re more aware of the contents of their own minds,” he continues. “Most of us are non-lucid at night because we’re non-lucid during the day.”
The Wake-and-Back-to-Bed Method. Developed by Stephen LaBerge, this method involves waking yourself up just before an REM cycle and setting an intention for lucid dreaming before going back to sleep. Since most of our dreaming takes place during the last two hours of night, Andrew suggests setting your alarm to go off two hours before you usually wake up. When the alarm goes off, stay awake for 20 to 40 minutes—but don’t get on your phone or start reading. Lie quietly or meditate, then go back to sleep. “You’ll have seeded that prime dream time,” Andrew says.
While lucid dreaming can be used for self-fulfillment, dream yoga (of which lucid dreaming is a part) is more often used for self-transcendence. “Dream yoga has its greatest expression in Tibetan Buddhism,” Andrew says. “It’s about spiritual practice. In dream yoga, you don’t fulfill your wildest fantasies. You engage in practices that are profound beyond words in their capacity to transform your mind and your reality.”
Consciously altering the contents of your dreams is one dream yoga practice that can have tangible effects in waking life, increasing your mental flexibility and your ability to get unstuck. “If you’re looking at a chair in a lucid dream, for example,” Andrew explains, “you try to change the dream chair into a dream car. Or you might hold your dream hand in front of you and try to make another hand appear. By changing the contents of your dreams, you’ll magically begin to realize in daily life that the anger you’re feeling, for example, is as fluid and changeable as that dream hand or dream chair. Lucid dreaming leads to lucid living. You begin to transform the way you relate to your experiences during the day.”
Working with fear is another dream yoga practice. “Rejected aspects of our being exist in the vast majority of nightmares,” Andrew says. “We throw parts of ourselves away. In nightmares, they come back for integration and healing. If you run from a demon in a nightmare, you keep that disenfranchised part of yourself alive. In dream yoga, though, you stay in the dream and alter your relationship to the experience. When you turn around and face your demons in a dream, they often disappear. You can start to heal these rejected aspects of yourself.”
Originally published by Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health