Even though it has only come to the attention of the general public in the last few decades, lucid dreaming is not a modern discovery. Lucid dreaming is the western term used to denote a practice similar to Yoga nidra. The distinguishing difference is the degree to which one remains cognizant of the actual physical environment as opposed to a dream environment. In lucid dreaming, we are only (or mainly) cognizant of the dream environment, and have little or no awareness of our actual environment. The concept of Yoga nidra is very ancient in Indian traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Krishna is often associated with Yoga nidra in epic Mahabharata. Similarly, many yogis and rishis are supposed to have experienced Yoga nidra throughout their life. In modern times, Yoga nidra was experienced by Swami Satyananda Saraswati when he was living with his guru Swami Sivananda in Rishikesh. He began studying the tantric scriptures and, after practice, constructed a system of relaxation, which he began popularizing in the mid 20th century. He explained yoga nidra as a state of mind between wakefulness and sleep that opened deep phases of the mind, suggesting a connection with the ancient tantric practice called nyasa, whereby Sanskrit mantras are mentally placed within specific body parts, while meditating on each part (of the bodymind). The form of practice taught by Swami Satyananda includes eight stages (Internalisation, Sankalpa, Rotation of Consciousness, Breath Awareness, Manifestation of Opposites, Creative Visualization, Sankalpa and Externalisation).
Also, in early Buddhism it was a common practice among people in the monastic community. As preserved in the ancient Sarvastivada school’s Sutra on Mindfulness of the Body in the Madhayama agama (equivalent of Pali Kayagatasati) it states that monks and nuns under practice should be ‘Understanding (having awareness in) the four postures and states of being asleep or awake’. Documented since the 8th century, Tibetan Buddhists and Bonpo were practicing a form of dream yoga held to maintain full waking consciousness while in the dream state. One important message of the book is the distinction between the Dzogchen meditation of awareness and dream yoga. The Dzogchen awareness meditation has also been referred to by the terms rigpa awareness, contemplation, and presence. Awareness during the sleep and dream states is associated with the Dzogchen practice of natural light. This practice only achieves lucid dreams as a secondary effect—in contrast to dream yoga, which aims primarily at lucid dreaming. According to Buddhist teachers, the experience of lucidity helps us understand the unreality of phenomena, which would otherwise be overwhelming during dream or the death experience.
In Western culture, the phenomenon had been referred to by Greek philosopher Aristotle who had written: “often when one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what then presents itself is but a dream”. Also in a letter written by St. Augustine of Hippo in 415 AD about a story of a dreamer, Doctor Gennadius, refers to lucid dreaming. The dreamer reported that he didn’t realize he was in the dream world but the man whom he met in his dream reminded him about this and pointed out that his experience was a proof of life after death.
An early recorded lucid dreamer was the philosopher and physician Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682). Browne was fascinated by the world of dreams and described his own ability to lucid dream in his Religio Medici: “…yet in one dream I can compose a whole Comedy, behold the action, apprehend the jests and laugh my self awake at the conceits thereof”. Similarly, Samuel Pepys in his diary entry for 15 August 1665 records a dream “that I had my Lady Castlemayne in my arms and was admitted to use all the dalliance I desired with her, and then dreamt that this could not be awake, but that it was only a dream”. Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys argued that it is possible for anyone to learn to dream consciously. In 1867, he published his book Les Rêves et les moyens de les diriger; observations pratiques (“Dreams and How to Guide them; Practical Observations”), in which he documented more than twenty years of his own research into dreams.
The term lucid dreaming was coined by Dutch author and psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden in his 1913 article “A Study of Dreams”. This paper was highly anecdotal and not embraced by the scientific community. Some consider this a misnomer because it means much more than just “clear or vivid” dreaming. The alternative term conscious dreaming avoids this confusion. However, the term lucid was used by van Eeden in its sense of “having insight”, as in the phrase a lucid interval applied to someone in temporary remission from a psychosis, rather than as a reference to the perceptual quality of the experience, which may or may not be clear and vivid.
In the 1950s, the Senoi hunter-gatherers of Malaysia were reported to make extensive use of lucid dreaming to ensure mental health, although later studies refuted these claims.
A 2012 report by the BBC claimed that “interest in lucid dreaming has grown in recent years”, and corroborated this with examples of the many smartphone apps that exist to help people experience the phenomenon. One such app was downloaded half a million times in six weeks, the report says.