The Process of Sleep and its Transformation in the Practice of Yoga

If we examine the sleep state, we can identify different phases of ‘normal’ sleep patterns for human beings in general. Starting from the waking state where we are conscious of the sights, and sounds of the outside world, as well as the thoughts and emotions and nervous impulses, feelings and pains of the physical body, we ultimately drift off, either quickly or slowly, into a state where these external perceptions and sensations recede and we enter the true sleep state. Initially this may be a state of light sleep, and various events, sounds, disturbances can easily awaken one from this stage. Usually on a regular repetitive cycle, we then enter into what is known as REM sleep, where the dreams take place. We do not generally pay attention to all the dreams that occur in REM sleep, only those that occur as we approach the waking state. That is why we tend to only remember the last dream of the night before we awake, or, if several, those after which we immediately awoke. Then there is a state of deep sleep when we neither react to external stimuli consciously nor are actively dreaming. This state provides recuperative rest to the physical body.

When people try to conquer or transform the sleep state generally, they either try to find ways to stay awake, whether through natural powers of concentration, exercise of will-power or potentially through chemical means, such as use of caffeine or other drugs. These steps however tend to have a deleterious effect on the physical body and the conscious awareness, and despite temporary ability to stay awake, eventually lead to torpor and fatigue of the body and a rebound reaction into tamas.

What is involved in the transformation of sleep is not to artificially try to stay awake, but to infuse consciousness in ever greater degrees into the various stages of sleep. Some people use the power of affirmation prior to sleeping to guide the consciousness into a state of luminous awareness. Some people actually understand the power of the sleep state in problem-solving and set an issue before the awareness before sleep and wake up with the answers!

Some utilize a journaling process to systematically record the dreams they recall, and in some cases, they can actually gain additional recall beyond the final dream through this process.

All of these things are necessarily limited methods but they tend to increase the awareness throughout the sleep state, without thereby disrupting the positive things that sleep provides to the body, the nervous system and the mind. The real answer however is to allow the higher consciousness to act as the individual increases receptivity.

It has been shown that a state of deep meditation can restore the body every bit as much as deep sleep, but the yogin is not in an unconscious state of deep sleep, but in an advanced state of increased consciousness. This provides us a clue to the eventual way to transform sleep.

Sri Aurobindo notes: “It is not a right method to try to keep awake at night; the suppression of the needed sleep makes the body tamasic and unfit for the necessary concentration during the waking hours. The right way is to transform the sleep and not suppress it, and especially to learn how to become more and more conscious in sleep itself. If that is done, sleep changes into an inner mode of consciousness in which the sadhana can continue as much as in the waking state, and at the same time one is able to enter into other planes of consciousness than the physical and command an immense range of informative and utilisable experience.”

Sri Aurobindo, Integral Yoga: Sri Aurobindo’s Teaching and Method of Practice, Chapter 10, Difficulties in Transforming the Nature, Sleep, pp 311-314

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