Sleep Yoga

If lucid dreaming and dream yoga are a form of “night school,” with sleep yoga and bardo yoga we enter “graduate school.” They’re not for everyone. Don’t worry if they don’t speak to you. But these more advanced practices are in the traditions, and just knowing about them can vastly expand your horizons in terms of what’s possible in the night. In Tibetan Buddhism, sleep yoga is called “luminosity yoga” (a term we’ll explore in future posts), and in Hinduism it is connected to Yoga Nidra (nidra means “sleep”).

Sleep yoga, or lucid sleeping, is when you maintain awareness in deep dreamless sleep. In the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, lucid dreaming is considered partial lucidity while lucid sleeping is full lucidity. In the Nyingma view, you’re only half-way there when you wake up in your dreams. Using the theme of “transcend but include” (each of the four nocturnal practices transcend but include their predecessor, ie., dream yoga transcends but includes lucid dreaming, sleep yoga transcends but includes both lucid dreaming and dream yoga, and bardo yoga transcends but includes them all) when you attain lucidity in deep dreamless sleep you automatically attain lucidity in your dreams.

Lucid dreaming is like getting onto first base, dream yoga gets you to second, sleep yoga will land you on third base, and with bardo yoga you’ve hit a grand slam. But once again, don’t worry. Plenty of people are happy just getting onto any “base.”

While lucid dreaming has been scientifically proven repeatedly over the last forty years, sleep yoga has not yet attained that exalted Western status. But scientists are working on it. The esteemed neuroscientist Gulio Tononi and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, (who I am in contact with) are working with seasoned meditators to verify the radical claim that you can be sound asleep and yet fully aware at the same time. For scientists, this is an incredulous assertion, but in the spirit of good science these intrepid researches are giving it a hard look.

It’s simply a matter of time before this ancient Eastern claim gains Western backing, and it is a potential paradigm buster. This is “yoga” at its best, stretching a paradigm to its breaking point, and introducing entirely new ways to expand our understanding of the nature of mind and reality.

From light switch to dimmer

According to Eastern models of mind, the “awakened ones,” buddhas from any tradition (those not just partially awake, but fully awake) never fall asleep. In the Eastern view, sleep is a product of ignorance, and when ignorance has been transformed into wisdom, “night” lights up into “day.” One attains a form of “constant consciousness,” or awareness through all possible states. This doesn’t mean that the awakened ones stay up 24/7 physically doing things, but that their mind never blacks out or turns fully off.

This seems like a radical claim only because the West has a “light switch” model of consciousness: you’re either awake or asleep, dead or alive. It’s a linear model where we get “online” when we wake up in the morning and go “offline” when we drop into sleep; or we get inline when we’re born and reach the end of the line when we die. It’s a binary or dualistic approach: black/white, yes/no, dead/alive, awake/asleep. And it is massively incomplete, a total eclipse of the mind.

The Eastern approach replaces the Western light switch with a dimmer. It’s only the untrained mind that blacks out when it falls asleep or dies. The trained mind just transitions from gross (waking consciousness) to subtle (dreaming consciousness) to very subtle (sleeping consciousness). Indeed, the trained mind doesn’t black out, it lights up – hence the term “luminosity yoga.” An internal “night light” is flipped on, or is finally recognized to always be on, and this light is so powerful that it can even illuminate, and therefore transform, the day.

This light is deeply connected to the Great Eastern Sun that Trungpa Rinpoche spoke about.

With this more refined dimmer model a few “photons” of consciousness are left on, a form of tacit awareness is sustained, as the mind goes from gross to subtle to very subtle. The linear approach has been replaced with a circle. It’s only gross waking consciousness that reaches the end of the line as we drift into sleep or die. Subtle and then super subtle states continue throughout the night (as described by sleep yoga), and if you believe in this sort of thing, from life to life (as described by bardo yoga).


While third-person science has not yet verified sleep yoga, first-person or phenomenological reports, do exist in the East. Mingyur Rinpoche shares this remarkable account:

“The Karmapa had arranged for a meeting between himself and a great non-sectarian scholar-monk who had tutored His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The Karmapa wanted to discuss a problem that he was having with his meditation. My mischievous brother served refreshments, then hid behind the door to listen. The Karmapa reported that he could maintain his awareness throughout the entire day, and track the dissolutions right up to almost falling asleep. Once he was asleep, he would again recognize his awareness. But there were a few moments each night, just before slipping into sleep, when he lost his recognition of awareness, and he sought advice on how to bring an end to this interruption. The revered guest listened awestruck. He had never encountered such a stunning report of continuous recognition, and immediately made prostrations to the embodied wisdom before him. He then told The Karmapa that he could not advise him, but they did discuss texts that spoke of the mind that made no distinction between day and night.”

What’s it like?

The reason sleep yoga is so subtle is because it’s formless. Dreamless means formless. Dream yoga may be subtle, but dreams still have form. Most of us in the West are still at the ego level of development (where ego is just an arrested form of development), and as Eckhart Tolle writes, “Ego is exclusive identification with form.” In fact, ego is the mother of all forms. So how does something fully formed experience something formless? How does ego experience egolessness? It doesn’t. It blacks out. Which is exactly our “experience” of dreamless/formless sleep.

While the entry-levels of sleep yoga are still subtly dualistic (turiya in Advaita Vedanta, or alaya vijnana in Yogchara Buddhism), the deepest levels are non-dualistic (turiyatita or alaya jnana). It gets so subtle that even consciousness is replaced with awareness. In other words, in the wisdom traditions “consciousness” is a pejorative or negative term. Consciousness always implies duality, you (a subject) are conscious of something other than you (an object). But formless means “thingless” (objectless), so in a formless state of mind there is literally no-thing to be conscious of. This is another reason we go unconscious when we fall into dreamless sleep – there is literally nothing there to be conscious of.

But there is still formless awareness itself — whether we recognize it or not. At these most refined levels, dualistic consciousness is replaced with non-dualistic awareness (sem is replaced with rigpa). But for those of us so firmly ensconced in a dualistic world, when non-duality is revealed in the dark we don’t recognize it. We just black out.

This is why the experience of sleep yoga is so hard to describe. But a few have tried. Here is an account by veteran lucid dreaming Robert Waggoner:

“As if a floating point of light in an expanse of aware, living light, the self-less awareness exists. Here, all awareness connects. All awareness intersects. All knowledge exists within the brilliant, clear, creamy light of awareness. Awareness is all; one point contains the awareness of all points; nothing exists apart. Pure awareness, knowing, light.”

Waggoner then adds this commentary to his experience:

“Within the aware light, there was no idea of self, or me, or mine. There were no thoughts, memories, or analysis; no Robert – only a light-filled knowing. Though I had no broader context from which to consider it, it seemed like my awareness had finally arrived at its source: pure awareness, the reality behind the manifest appearances and symbols. The ultimate homecoming. In that aware light, All Is – the essence of everything seemed contained in an ever-present Now. All awareness connected in that pure awareness. In that great nothing, Everything Is.”

Lucid dreamer Mary Ziemer shares her experience:

“[W]hen the dreambody seemingly dissolves on the cooling, black light and winds, it feels like what the alchemists describe: the soul becomes free of the body – the spiritualization of matter. Depending on my state of mind, I have found that this dissolving process can feel like either an ecstatic death dominated by Eros or an annihilative sensation dominated by a feeling of mortification.”

Just learning about sleep yoga, let alone bardo yoga, will stretch your mind beyond its wildest imagination. With a deeper understanding of the maps that describes these states, and touching into the territory during the day with formless meditations – the topics for our upcoming posts – you may someday starting to light up during the darkest parts of the night.

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