The first time I went to a yoga retreat, a friend advised me to pay attention to my dreams. “You’ll have some doozies with all that energy,” is what she said. Coincidentally, that same weekend, I met Nick Atlas who knows more about dreams than anyone I’ve ever met. Since our first meeting, Nick has founded both Evolutionary Education and Yoga Sleep Therapy, and is now earning a Ph.D. in psychology at The University of West Georgia.
We reconnected to talk about yoga nidra, meditation, and lucid dreaming because he is doing a workshop in NYC soon.
Carly Sachs: How did you begin your journey?
Nick Atlas: In 2002 I was a senior in college. I was taking a yoga class and the instructor introduced us to yoga nidra. About a month or so into that semester I had a dream where I was shot in between in the eyes, died, experienced nothingness, and was reborn into a hospital room. When I woke up, I knew something had changed. Suddenly, it was as if the lights had turned on. The more I practiced relaxation and meditation in that way, the more vivid my dreams became.
CS: Do you think we should pay more attention to our dreams?
NA: Throughout history, dreams have been thought of in different ways. Dreams were often considered prophetic and had healing capabilities. In modern times, we tend to think of dreams as process of consolidation. For example, our mind is trying to solve problems that weren’t digested during the day. Plato believed this and Freud categorized this. But scientifically there is no empirical evidence supporting one paradigm over the other. In other words, both theories could be true, yet we generally dismiss the more mystical angle in favor of the more mundane explanation.
CS: In your bio, you describe yourself as a "dream yogi." Tell me more.
NA: Dream yoga, as I understand it, is a very ancient practice. I read one account that the Tibetan Bön tradition is about 17,000 years old. It’s a practice of learning how to maintain pure awareness while we sleep, and ultimately how to die and navigate the afterlife. Essentially, it’s the practice of enlightenment (which, ideally, doesn’t stop when we go to bed or when we leave the body).
CS: Are there foundational practices?
NA: Basically, the practice is meditation, but meditation is an ambiguous word. So it’s learning how to stay present and especially while you enter into and out of sleep
CS: What are some steps or practices you can recommend to help people tap into these states?
NA: For me, the most valuable practices is pranayama. It is one of the best ways to move energy through your body and to bring everything online--both physiologically and psychologically. Pranayama activates all of the body's systems and flushes out impurities, which results in greater focus and heightened sensitivity. Likewise, iRest yoga nidra is the most comprehensive approach to meditation that I've encountered. Meditation is truly both an art and a science, and iRest provides both a framework or "map" for understanding the subtle shifts and states of mind that occur within meditation and the practical steps for how to progress along that journey.
CS: How do you know when you’re having a dream that is a big signal, as opposed to just normal dreams?
NA: This is an excellent question and is a major theme in my research. More often than not, I experience such dreams viscerally--I'll feel a rush of energy or enter into a state of embodiment during the dream itself. While some "big" dreams occur at a purely emotional level--so for instance, you might wake up feeling very clear or inspired mentally--the most impressive dreams can actually be felt in my body, which may tingle or even explode with energy--the visual experience of the dream often reflects this in some way, such as the experience of flying, seeing ethereal light or participating in something miraculous. I'll usually wake up feeling physically and mentally invigorated, as if an energetic blockage has been cleared.
CS: Why have you learned about the lucid dreaming through your studies?
NA: Lucid dreaming shows us how the mind works—it teaches us about will and surrender and intention. I think it teaches us about how “reality” works. The mind is potentially much more flexible when we’re sleeping, as we’re less burdened by our aches, pains and distractions. Energy is more liberated and freely available, so we have this opportunity for much greater awareness.
CS: Explain more about that
NA: A large part of meditation is the gathering of attention so that we can focus very deeply, but this is challenging when our body and environment are pulling our attention in every conceivable direction. While asleep, we can meditate much more deeply because a tremendous amount of energy that would otherwise be occupied by our waking bodily functions may now be reallocated. For example, imagine that the energy that is completely devoted to keeping our muscles tight enough to support our ability to stand up straight suddenly filters back into a large pool of potential energy while we're asleep--this is basically the ultimate relaxation and the reason why the body both grows and repairs itself while we sleep. If we can succeed in alerting the mind that we're conscious even though we're asleep, we can tap into that vast resource, gather our attention and integrate all of that extra energy into our awareness--we merge it with our consciousness. If we have one hundred ten volts of electricity available to light up our mind while we're awake, we have a hundred thousand volts available while we're asleep, hence the potential to have illuminating experiences, literally
CS: Is that like yoga nidra?
NA: There’s the practice of yoga nidra and the underlying philosophy. The practice is like a guided relaxation, meditation, visualization, etc.. In yoga nidra you can learn to shift into liminal states of consciousness—like the edge of sleep—and may experience all kinds of extrasensory perceptions about yourself and the world. Learning how to “shift” is one of the keys to becoming lucid. Once you’re in a lucid dream, however, you can practice yoga nidra again. There will come a moment in a dream when you’ll have an epiphany—you’ll know that you’re dreaming and everything will become much more rich and meaningful. It’s like a super-conscious state. Often the dreams will become more kinesthetic—you can feel the experience in your body. In the West, many people tend to take control of their lucid dreams because you may be able to live out your fantasies. The most frequent activities are flying and sexual experiences. However, if you learn to let go of control, and to surrender in your dream, all sorts of miraculous things are possible.
Nick Atlas will be teaching at Pure West on Saturday, Feb 22nd.
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