Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The nightmare

The Nightmare, by Henry Fuselli (1781), thought to be one of the classic depictions of sleep paralysis perceived as a demonic visitation.

I have a question for you yoginis out there. (Cara, that especially means you, but also anybody else who wants to chime in.) Is it a bad thing to go into Savasana, or Corpse Pose, as a method of trying to go to sleep? I vaguely remember Lois, my onetime yoga teacher, cautioning us about not going too deeply into Savasana, but I never really understood why it might be a problem. I mean, it's just relaxation, right?

Here's why I'm asking. The other night, I stayed up way past my bedtime, having watched Fight Club with Eli, and then decided to watch the commentary afterward. It was way longer than I'd expected, and so it was 1:30 by the time I got to bed. Tony was gone, so it was just lonely me. And there I lay, sleepless, until sometime after 4 a.m. I think it's safe to say that I was feeling pretty stressed out at the time.

So I decide to go into Savasana, despite Lois's advice. Before I know it, I very clearly heard someone come into the bedroom. I could swear I could sense a very real presence hovering over my bed. I was absolutely terrified, sure it was an axe murderer. I tried to move and call out, but couldn't; I was frozen. Finally, I forced myself to open my eyes and look around the room. There was no one there, of course. But I was shaken; the experience seemed incredibly real.

So I googled my experience, and of course this phenomenon has a name: sleep paralysis, accompanied by hypnagogic hallucinations. This is a fairly common phenomenon, apparently. And what causes it? According to the Wikipedia entry, some of the factors associated with the phenomenon include sleeping in a supine position (check); irregular sleeping schedules, naps, sleeping in, sleep deprivation (check); increased stress (double check); sudden environmental/lifestyle changes (I don't know, I've been in Geneva for nearly three months now. But Tony was gone, so check.)

And there are tons of cultural references to sleep paralysis and hallucinations from all over the world. For you language people out there, Wikipedia says that

In Scandanavian mythology, sleep paralysis was caused by a Mara, or mare--a kind of malignant female wraith who can also cause nightmares. She appears as early as in the Norse Ynglinga saga, but the belief itself is probably even older. "Mara" is the Old Norse, Swedish and Icelandic name, "mare" is Norwegian and Danish....People in England believed that witches or hags rode on men's chests as they slept, and the feeling of being unable to breathe [one of the common symptoms] was attributed to a hag. This is why people who have had very little sleep may be described as looking "hag-ridden."

That demonic presence would have to be a woman, wouldn't she? My particular demon was male, and I'd say he looked more like the guy in Fuselli's painting. And I, of course, looked very much like the lovely maid.

So...Savasana = a demonic visitation? Is this what Lois was warning us about?


caraf said...

Whoa! Intense! Moral of the story: no more Fight Club! (I LOVE the Fuselli image, by the way. Sort of how it feels when I wake up with John's cat on my chest, the little devil). As far as savasana goes, I'm certainly no authority but I think Lois's concern is that if you associate savasana too much with sleep you will associate relaxing with sleeping. That's ill-advised because so few of us know how to actually relax where our bodies are in a calm, but alert state. That's why she frowns when people fall asleep during savasana in class (esp. when they snore!). The goal is to relax AND be awake at the same time. I have tried some of the same techniques of savasana in order to calm my mind when I am trying to go to sleep. Usually it doesn't work (and after reading this post I'm glad it didn't). Maybe it would have been better to get up and do a few other calming yoga poses instead? (maybe forward bending or something?) We need to get Grace on the case here. Grace?

Patbrace said...

Great picture! Looks exactly like you, Sara, when your hair was longer of course. What's with the horsie on the left?

I have never done yoga, but I did have a similar experience...of being very tired, talking until well into the night, crawling into a strange bed, dozing, and then opening my eyes to see a man walk into the room, stand at the foot of my bed and look at me. When I sat up, he was gone. Not being a scientist, I decided he was a ghost. I mean, duh!

As for the hags, if you look back into ancient Jewish myth you will find Lilith, Adam's first wife, playing the hag role. (I think she was probably responsible for wet dreams as well, and so she could be an attractive hag, one must suppose. Oh, and she killed babies in their sleep...crib death?) Lilith is a much more lyrical name than hag, though, don't you think?

Next time you need help with sleep I suggest you read history. Anglo Saxon history works great for me. And I also found Laurence Durell's "Justine" to be an excellent soporific, but don't tell Tony.

slatta said...

Pat asks: "What's with the horsie?"

Horsie, my ass! That's Nick Bottom, methinks. (Sorry, I couldn't help it.) And Puck is just having fun with me.

Lilith is a fascinating figure in feminist theology. I've read quite a bit about her. Not only was she attractive, but she had a mind of her own. That, of course, is why she couldn't last as Adam's wife.

caraf said...

My friend Loralee is writing an epic poem about Lilith -- right now! (Probably, literally, RIGHT NOW).

Speak(er) said...

And all this time I thought Lilith was just Frasier's wife! I gotta hang around you writer types more often! No telling what I could learn.

ps. This week to the library to get started on the top 92. Any suggestions as to what I should read first?

Happy Easter! or, Happy Passover, or [enter PC greeting here].

Patbrace said...

Lilith is the central character of a book by I-Forget-Her-First-Name Chamberlain called "Leaving Eden". Have you ever read it. Wonderful book!

slatta said...

I looked "Leaving Eden" up on Amazon, and there are three books by that title, but of course only one by Ann-is-her-first-name Chamberlin. It sounds great.

Lu, what are you in the mood for? Lately I've been pushing Evidence of Things Unseen, by Marianne Wiggens, on everybody I know.