I.38 स्वप्ननिद्राज्ञानालम्बनं वा

svapna-nidrā-jñānālambanam vā
svapna-nidrā-jñāna-ālambanam vā

“Or, the support of the knowledge from dreams and sleep.”

An object or idea that one chooses to focus on is considered, in the yogic sense, to be a “support” for the citta. The flow of citta gathers and organizes itself around such a support. It settles and gains clarity. Those familiar with the Sanskrit names of the āsanas will recognize the verb root of ālambana in sālamba sarvāṅgāsana, the queen of the poses. Often called “shoulder-stand” in English, the pose in Sanskrit is “with support, all-limbs (or all-body) āsana.” When one lifts one’s arms off the ground and balances on the shoulders alone, it is called nirālamba, “without support.”

In Iyengar Yoga, taking support–perhaps blankets for sitting, a block for the hand in standing poses, a belt for the legs in a reclined position–allows exploration in the pose and can help refine action. Support is an important principle. What is the base of the pose? What directions in space build structure? Mr. Iyengar has said that the floor is our first support–part of the practice is to let go of props to which we have become habituated, to work just with the floor and the body and space. In a general way, it could be said that, in āsana practice, the body is a support for the mind. With the body, we look at the mind.

The support that Patañjali describes here, svapna-nidrā-jñāna, is knowledge from dreams and sleep. The classical view of this sūtra is that only dreams of a divine nature, “heaven-sent” as it were, provide real knowledge–and it is these dreams that Patañjali refers to. But several non-classical commentators take a distinctly modern approach to “knowledge from dreams.” That is, they describe a process of learning about one’s own mind and awareness through dreams. Their view is influenced, in short, by modern psychology–by Freud and Jung and what has become a common understanding of the  influence and depths of the unconscious mind.

For me, the modern sense of the conscious and unconscious fits well with Patañjali’s descriptions of citta. It is vast, he says in an upcoming sutra (I.40), and can extend from the greatest magnitude to the greatest minuteness. Dreams, in my experience, often reveal that I know more than I think I know. Through association, imagery, story, the citta speaks. In her poem Dreams, Mary Oliver explores dream meaning–or is it non-meaning, a knowledge just beyond “a string of letters,” a non-answer.

–Mary Oliver

All night
the dark buds of dreams

In the center
of every petal
is a letter,
and you imagine
if you could only remember
and string them all together
they would spell the answer.
It is a long night,

and not an easy one—-
you have so many branches,
and there are diversions—-
birds that come and go,

the black fox that lies down
to sleep beneath you,
the moon staring
with her bone-white eye.

Finally you have spent
all the energy you can
and you drag from the ground
the muddy skirt of your roots

and leap awake
with two or three syllables
like water in your mouth and a sense

of loss—-a memory
not yet of a word,
certainly not yet the answer—-
only how it feels

when deep in the tree
all the locks click open,
and the fire surges through the wood,
and the blossoms blossom.

The second kind of knowledge here is from sleep itself. In deep sleep, the commentators say, we are close to our original nature, to the source, to the divine. Mr. Iyengar has said that on waking from sleep, we get a taste of samādhi. Bernard Bouanchaud suggests that the practitioner take steps to encourage sound sleep, to experience a more sattvic state in sleep. Patañjali has earlier defined sleep as one of the vṛtti, a pattern of mind: I.10 abhāva-pratyayālambanā vrttir nidrā (“Sleep is supported by a thought-wave toward not-being.”) Hidden yet commonplace, such a private event in our lives, sleep is an essential process of citta. Sleep unites us. In sleep, we are all innocents. Sleep does seem like a return–to use Patañjali’s phrase from I.10–a movement toward not-being. It is, perhaps, before being.


“By a dream experience, Patañjali means a dream about a holy personality or a divine symbol. … In the literature of Indian spirituality we find many instances of devotees who dreamed that they received a mantram from some great teacher. Such a dream-mantram is regarded as being just as sacred as one which is given in the waking state.” –Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, How to Know God, commentary on I.38

“According to the Vedic tradition, deep sleep (nidra) is a particular state. Though the mind is in contact with its pure source, God, it is unconscious of what is happening. We become aware of the quality of sleep only afterwards–‘I’ve had a good sleep.'” –Bernard Bouanchaud, The Essence of Yoga, commentary on I.38

“The mind is like an iceberg, for only a small portion of its functioning is on the surface while the major part is below the surface. The subliminal layers of the mind reveal the real motivations of the conscious mind. … Dream indicates the functioning of mind immediately below the conscious level, while sleep signifies the mind functioning at a deeper strata of consciousness. Unless one knows what is going on at these levels, a mere outer pattern of vītarāga or non-attachment has no significance at all.”–Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, p. 70

“Rather like psychoanalysis or psychotherapy, the practice of Yoga involves the whole person, not only his waking consciousness but also the subconscious. The yogin’s spiritual quest entails a complete reorientation of his entire life which, unsurprisingly, is also reflected in his dreams which become more vivid and charged with meaning.”  –Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali, commentary on I. 38

• Do you reflect on dreams and sleep as a practice?
• What knowledge have you received from dreams?
• When do you most feel restored by sleep? Do you purposely support the quality of your sleep in any way?
• Where are you in deep sleep?


masculine noun in compound

dream (from svap, “to sleep”)


feminine noun in compound

sleep (from ni-, “under,” + drā, “to sleep”)


neuter noun in compound

knowledge (from jña, “to know”)


noun, 1st case singular

support, prop (lamb is “to hang”; ālamb is “to support”)



One thought on “I.38 स्वप्ननिद्राज्ञानालम्बनं वा

  1. Julia, this is beautifully explored and inspiring me to bring more ” awakeness” towards this movement of awareness during sleep. Mary’s poem resonates as it holds dreams as another dimension of the imagination and i wonder if in this act, the brain comes into some reorganization from momentary, unconscious fragmentation of the mind during the wakened state.

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