Decolonising Sleep

Or the reparative power of rest as a radical act to restore rhythmic cycles

Our online series Becoming Human explores the physical, psychological and experiential aspects of our current predicament and how we might realign our bodies and minds with the living systems. Uma Dinsmore-Tuli makes a case for the reclamation of sleep in an insomniac culture.
is a yoga teacher and therapist, founder of the Yoga Nidra network and Santosa Living Yoga camps, an eco-feminist activist, and a mother of three. She has written four books on yoga for women, withYoni Shakti now in its second printing. Since 2001 she has trained over 1000 specialist teachers in Total Yoga Nidra, women’s yoga, and therapeutic yoga for pregnancy, birth and postnatal recovery.

Notes from a fractal encyclopædist on the interdependence of sleep and waking, delivered at a time when the only radical act remaining is to rest. Being declarations of freedom, independence and interdependence at the ragged edges of awareness, from a well-dreamt biographer of the power of sleep herself …


Netflix’s biggest competition is sleep

– CEO Reed Hastings (Independent, 19th April 2017)


There are colonies of wakefulness

upon the land of sleep.

Mining treasures from the caves of dream,

and clearing forests of rest

from hillsides of slumber.


These colonies of wakefulness are

Stealing from this land.


Anxiety and sleeplessness

Are stealing from this land

that used to be

A wild and pathless place to rest,

A secret forest of repair,

A private lake of restoration,

A hidden place of refuge to restore

within the wild diversity

of restful sleep and dream.


Now ecosystems of our sleeping cycles are destroyed,

and disrespect for rest



the rhythms of sleep.


Addiction to the wakeful states

denies all reparation,

distances from wisdom

and disconnects from dream.

Public colonies of wakefulness

now profit

from our collective insomnia.


Our private rest is broadcast time,

And we have forgotten

How to sleep.



Can you catch her? Can you still sense her?

Can you feel her presence at the ragged edges of your dreams? She is the Wild Queen of Liminality. She is Nidra Shakti, Queen of Dreams, dark feminine power of sleep. She is encountered, amongst other places, in profound rest, and in those liminal states of consciousness experienced in the meditative practices of Yoga Nidra, or the Sleep of the Yogis. She is the power of sleep herself.

And for the past five timeless years I have been writing her biography.

Serving her story, writing her life, I have followed Nidra Shakti into the fractal echoes of trances we have shared together in 27 different countries and states across this increasingly sleepless world of tired humans, all desperate to rest. I have sung exhausted beings into the restful spaces between places, and insomniacs have fallen asleep hearing the praises of the Queen of Sleep herself. No-one can resist her; she will get everybody in the end, no matter how much coffee they drink.

In the liminal space of Nidra Shakti’s domain, five years into this writing dream of sleep’s queen, I have awoken to discover that her biography has become an urgent song of freedom, a call for liberation, a poetic manifesto for the decolonising of sleep.

For even here in the lands of our dreams, even this intimate territory of rest, our sleep has been colonised. Just as the land beneath our tired bones has been owned and sold, thieved from us and rented back to us, so too has sleep been stolen from us by the lords of profit.



Untimely ripped 

and dreaming still

we are bleeding from the roots

of interrupted sleep,

of insufficient hours of rest.


This dislocated rhythm 

disconnects us from our dreams;


And sleeping children, 

dreaming still 

are bundled into outdoor clothes

and uniforms of wakefulness 

that rush them to attend 

to the teachings of machinery

that drags them out of heart and dream,

Displaces them from earth

to pay attention

to teachings that require no dreaming

to teachings that dismiss our hearts


In the buses,

On the trains, 

And inside metal boxes

on the road queues


Rows of

underslept confusions


torn from worlds of rest and dream 

barely knowing we are human –

– to be human is to dream.

and to feel the earth beneath the buildings we inhabit and the vehicles we drive –


in confusion,

barely woken, 

we are sleeping as we drive 

to machineries of dream death;



and in confusion, 

ripped in dream

from sleep’s warm womb

to a premature arrival 

on the shores of this new day.  



The power of sleep, Nidra Shakti herself, she too has been colonised and trademarked. Even this power, the wildest queen, the benefactress of our dreaming insights, even she too has been boxed, dismembered, forgotten and rediscovered.

She has been owned and sold to the US military as a therapy for veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after active duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. Neurologists have measured her influence under experimental conditions in Kansas and Copenhagen in the nineteen-seventies and eighties. And meanwhile, hordes of exhausted insomniacs, including Lord Vishnu, sustainer of creation in the Indic pantheon, have snored sweetly in her lap for over three thousand years. Yogis, healers, indigenous shaman, poets, inventors, psychologists, stage hypnotists, medicine people and other fellow seekers after peace, she has travelled and slept with them all.

She has moments of freedom. Amongst her most admired liberatory adventures, she assisted the reparation and restoration of the Black Panther warrior kings of the mythic African nation of Wakanda, and the dreamtime visioning of Martin Luther King. She has enjoyed the wild sweet embraces of naked Kashmiri songstress Lalleshwari in 1350, as she sang of the interdependence of sleeping, waking and wisdom. Nidra Shakti inspired the rhapsodic visions of the Irish Nobel Laureate in London in 1888, and the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra in eleventh century India, and she has danced through charmed encounters with Transcendentalists and Relaxationists in 19th century Massachusetts.

Nidra Shakti’s intimates include Lal Ded, Octavia Butler, Twylah Nitsch, Henry David Thoreau, Annie Payson Call, William Butler Yeats, Thomas Edison, Leonardo DaVinci, and a crew of yogic gurus with ambiguous reputations, such as Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Swami Rama and Amrit Desai, as well as a number of curious psychologists, and her greatest American admirer, Ormond McGill, father of US stage hypnotism.

And now, after all these adventures, it is only in the wildest places, the places where there are no alarm clocks, and dreams are revered and welcomed, that Nidra Shakti remains free.

It is only in the wildest places, the places where there are no alarm clocks, and dreams are revered and welcomed, that Nidra Shakti remains free.

And so, when I lead people in the practice of Yoga Nidra, I strive to do so in a way that is post-lineage, decolonised, creative and spontaneously responsive. It is an approach free from the dogma and specific directives of any single school, not fixed to protocols and scripts dictated by gurus or commodifying organisations. Each session is improvised in response to the unique needs of the listeners, to place, time and season. Those who lie and listen find it is often inherently therapeutic, frequently meditative, and mostly hypnotic. To me, it is a technology of freedom.

Nidra Shakti’s songs and stories are about sleep as our birthright. Resting is a radical act of reclamation of our capacity to restore and repair ourselves in sleep, to be free from the enforced denial of adequate sleep by the inhuman demands of commerce and capital.

I believe and trust that, in the few remaining places that humans can rest and dream in rhythmic cycles of revival, this power of Sleep will emerge to heal. In uncolonised freedom space, at the wild fractal edges of awareness, in the places between sleep and dream, we remain present enough to hear these songs of freedom calling for repair and restoration.


Free audio downloads of Nidra Shakti sessions are available at


IMAGE: Feeding from the Fire Below by Kate Walters (from Issue 6 and Walking on Lava)

Watercolour and conte on gesso-prepared canvas

A dream of the Mother, a sense of being supported by the fruitfulness of an intense relationship with Nature, here embodied by a deer and an acacia tree; and the increasing and yet-to-be-born which gives Mothering life. The support is implied by the connection with a spirit animal –in this case the Horse, which according to Marie-Louise von Franz is the authentic ‘voice of the cells’  – in touch with the Fire which lights all life and is found in the earth.


Dark Mountain: Issue 16 – REFUGE

The Autumn 2019 issue is a tenth anniversary collection celebrating a decade of uncivilised writing and art

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  1. Thank you for this amazing piece! It speaks soulfully to a fundamental yet mostly overlooked terrain disrupted by civilization and its 24/7 culture: sleep and dream. I love how you remind us of sleep’s immense power through Nidra Shakti. I have been exploring this topic for some time, through the works of Jonathan Crary (24/7) and Clark Strand (Waking Up to the Dark); also Persephone. Your piece opens up another dimension.

  2. Thank you. This is beautiful and I have been reaching towards honoring sleep more and more. I have received some of my most creative inspirations from dream states. As I grow older, I have found it harder to sleep, easier to wake. I wonder what wisdom Nidra Shakti holds on the trend of older people sleeping less?

  3. What a beautifully written poetic & defiant protection of our birthright. To rest is being human

  4. HurraAHHH ….for what feels like a possible preamble for a “Declaration of Independence” for the soul!!!

    Thank you touching so many dimensions of the machine world that is slowly erasing the human capacity to BE.

    Now that the socio-economic culmination in modernity of extractive economies
    has reached the point of threatening the homeostasis of our Mother Earth itself,
    de-colonizing sleep may well be our only
    hope. It’s going to take ALL of
    us to show up for ALL of HER.!

  5. This is so refreshing to read…. I have an immense amount of fatigue in me ….. all my friends and colleagues are performing… and I have the feeling that I m so under performing due to exhaustion! Thanks for this… beautiful.

  6. I second the relation between sleep and freedom! Having spent time in some remote Tibetan valleys, I actually made it a goal to sleep like a few people I knew in the village.

    The peacefulness and freedom I felt they had in their waking hours was mirrored in their sleep, and I thought to myself, if nothing else, how one sleeps is a pretty good indicator of their state of being.

  7. I would say I have been a sleep advocate all my life. I had to defend my position of needing so much sleep at times to people! But it was indeed during those restful times and sleepful times and dream states that I had insights and ideas. This is a beautiful piece! Thank you!


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