Astral projection (or astral travel) is an esoteric interpretation of a type of out-of-body experience that assumes the existence of an "astral body" separate from the physical body and capable of traveling outside it. Astral projection is experienced as being "out of the body". Unlike dreaming or near death experiences, astral projection is practiced deliberately.
The idea of astral travel is rooted in common worldwide religious accounts of the afterlife in which the soul's journey or "ascent" is described in such terms as "an...out-of-body experience, wherein the spiritual traveller leaves the physical body and travels in his/her subtle body (or dreambody or astral body) into ‘other’ realms.
Though there is little evidence for astral projection beyond subjective personal accounts of the experience, belief that one has had an out-of-body experience, whether spoken of as "astral projection" or not, is common. Hundreds of personal accounts of astral projection were published in a number of books through the 1960s and 70s. Surveys have reported percentages ranging from 8% (as much as 50% in certain groups of respondents) who state they have had such an experience. Because of the subjective nature of the experience, however, there are many plausible explanations that do not rely on the existence of an "astral" body and plane.
Astral projection, or astral travel, denotes the astral body or double leaving the physical body to travel in the astral plane. The astral body, in classical, mediaeval and renaissance Neoplatonist philosophy as well as that of the later Theosophists and Rosicrucians, is a body of light intermediate between, and uniting, the rational soul and the physical body, while the astral plane is a world of light, composed of the spheres of the planets and stars, likewise intermediate between heaven and the physical world. These astral spheres were held to be populated by gods, angels, demons and spirits.
The subtle bodies, and their associated planes of existence, form an essential part of the esoteric systems that deal with "astral" phenomena. In the neo-platonism of Plotinus, for example, the individual is a microcosm ("small world") of the universe (the macrocosm or "great world"). "The rational soul...is akin to the great Soul of the World" while "the material universe, like the body, is made as a faded image of the Intelligible". Each succeeding plane of manifestation is causal to the next, a world-view called emanationism; "from the One proceeds Intellect, from Intellect Soul, and from Soul - in its lower phase, or Nature - the material universe". Often these bodies and their corresponding planes of existence are depicted as a series of concentric circles or nested spheres, with a separate body for traversing each realm.
Similar concepts of "soul" travel appear in various other religious traditions, for example ancient Egyptian teachings present the soul as having the ability to hover outside the physical body in the ka, or subtle body. A common belief is that the subtle body is attached to the physical body by means of a psychic silver cord.
The idea of the astral figured prominently in the work of the ninteteenth-century French occultist Eliphas Levi, whence it was adopted by Theosophy and Golden Dawn magical society. The Theosophists also took note of similar ideas (Lin'ga S'ari-ra) found in ancient Hindu scriptures such as the YogaVashishta-Maharamayana of Valmiki.
However the expression came to be used in two different ways. Whereas for the classical and mediaeval philosophers astral "projection" was a journey to other worlds, such as heavens, hells, the astrological spheres and other imaginal landscapes - a meaning which it kept in the Golden Dawn and among some Theosophists - by others it was taken to mean travelling, in a ghostly form, around the ordinary physical world. It is this latter meaning, perhaps, though strictly it has nothing to do with the "astral", that is now most widely recognised. Later Theosophists such as Leadbetter and Bailey designate this latter "etheric" travel.
The astral environment is often theoretically divided into levels or planes. There are many different views concerning the overall structure of the astral planes in various traditions. These planes may include heavens and hells and other after-death spheres, transcendent environments or other less-easily characterized states.
In contrast to astral projection, etheric projection is described as the ability to move about in the material world in a etheric body which is usually, though not always, invisible to people who are presently "in their bodies." Robert Monroe describes this type of projection as a projection to "Locale I" or the "Here-Now", and describes it as containing people and places that he feels actually exist in the material world. Robert Bruce refers to a similar area as the "Real Time Zone" (RTZ) and describes it as the nonphysical, dimension-level closest to the physical.
According to Max Heindel, the etheric "double" serves as a medium between the astral and physical realms. In his system, the ether, also called prana, is the "vital force" that empowers the physical forms in order for that change to take place. From his descriptions it can be inferred that when one views the physical during an OBE, they are not technically "in" the astral realm at all.
The subtle vehicle remains connected to the physical body during the separation by a so-called “silver cord”, said to be that mentioned in Ecclesiastes 12:6. Stephen LaBerge suggested in his 1985 book Lucid Dreaming that all such "out-of-body experiences" may represent partially lucid dreams or "misinterpreted dream experiences", in which the sleeper does not fully recognize the situation. "In the dark forest, one may experience a tree as a tiger, but it is still in fact only a tree.
Hugh G. Callaway, under the pseudonym Oliver Fox, published a series of articles in The Occult Review during the 1920s that later became the basis of a book, Astral Projection (1939). Hereward Carrington, a psychical researcher, along with Sylvan Muldoon, who professed ease with astral projection, published The Projection of the Astral Body in 1929. Both Callaway and Muldoon wrote of techniques they felt facilitated a projection into the astral. Among these practices included visualizing such mental images as flying or being in an elevator traveling upward, just before going to sleep. They also recommended trying to regain waking consciousness while in a dream state (lucid dreaming). This was done, they wrote, by habitually recognizing apparent incongruities in one's dream, such as noticing a different pattern of wallpaper in one's home. Such recognition, they said, sometimes resulted in normal consciousness, but with the feeling of being outside the physical body and able to look down on it.
In occult traditions, practices range from inducing trance states to the mental construction of a second body, called the Body of Light in Aleister Crowley's writings, through visualization and controlled breathing, followed by the transfer of consciousness to the secondary body by a mental act of will.