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How to Improve Your Sleep Posture

Yesterday, I posited that it’s not so much the bedding that matters in making for rejuvenating, nourishing sleep, but rather our sleeping position/posture [7]. Man is the supreme adaptor, having proven himself capable of surviving in just about any natural environment, no matter the climate, topography, and available selection of edibles – and our bedding is no different. Of course, there is a limit to our adaptability. We couldn’t survive in the Antarctic or get a good night’s sleep in a mud pit. Thriving in the current food environment is definitely doable, but, as you well know, it takes a lot of effort to make it work. Luckily, we aren’t dealing with hydrogenated mattresses or high-fructose pillows, so the bedding situation isn’t so dire.

You can keep it pretty simple, in fact: if you’re getting good, pain-free sleep already, hacking isn’t necessary. Just keep doing what you’re doing and keep the bed you’ve got. (Keep reading, though.)

If you’re waking up with pain, though, we should reevaluate. Pain usually indicates an improper sleeping position, and that’s the easiest thing to fix (rather than buying an entirely new bed), so let’s look at some other options.

Sleeping in the supine position with a lengthened spine, as I mentioned [7] yesterday, seems to be the least problematic. It’s relatively easy to attain, and as long as you don’t snore and drive your sleeping partner to retaliatory violence, you should be able to get a good night’s sleep and wake up without pain. I should note that I messed up a small detail regarding the spine lengthening; while I said you should lengthen the spine by pushing with your hands, it’s actually much easier pushing with your elbows. Gokhale’s book [8] goes into far more detail, of course.

Another potential problem with sleeping on one’s back is that some people just can’t get comfortable enough to sleep. It can be rather boring. You can’t spoon your loved one (or a pillow) from that position, and there’s something about splaying out across the bed on your stomach or side that just feels good. Side or stomach sleeping, while satisfying, tends to be a bit more problematic. There’s more room for error.

But the allure is undeniable. It’s almost instinctual, isn’t it, to sleep on your side? I’m a firm believer in listening to your body, and if it’s telling you to sleep on your side, or stomach, maybe you should listen. Just make sure you do it right. Side sleeping is the most popular position worldwide, but many of our musculoskeletal systems have spent their time on earth sitting in bad chairs, hunched over keyboards, and exercising incorrectly in bulky shoes. We might be a bit too “tainted” to launch into instinctual sleeping positions without worry. Side sleeping can often aggravate shoulder injuries, and if you’ve got poor thoracic mobility and a strong tendency toward kyphosis [9] of the shoulder blades, sleeping on either side will exaggerate the kyphosis of that side. If you’re a right-side sleeper, your right shoulder will slump forward all night under your bodyweight. People without kyphosis can probably handle side sleeping without much of a problem – but how many people don’t have some modicum of slumping going on?

Gokhale ‘s book contains a lesson on side lying, which involves lengthening your spine without turning it into a hunch, which is how most people nowadays sleep on their side: in the fetal position with a strong forward curl of the spine. All you folks who like to cuddle pillows, I’m pointing at you. Be wary of the forward curl! She shows you how to maintain the comfort of side lying with bent legs and a straight, lengthened spine. I bet you could even slip a big comfy pillow in there and stick the position.

For you stomach sleepers, physiotherapist Michael Tetley has some interesting observations [10] – and recommendations – based on his time with several groups of African tribesmen. He comes off as a bit wacky, but his observations are useful. His first example is the side lying position. The visual juxtaposition of a mountain gorilla with a Kenyan man [11] is striking, with both subjects lying on their side with impeccable form and long, straight spines.

Next, he recommends sleeping in the recovery position [12], sort of a half-stomach, half-side sleeping position with the bottom arm looping across the front of the neck to the opposite shoulder for neck support and the outside arm resting gently on the ground or bed. In this position, the bottom leg is positioned as a resting place for the penis to avoid it “[dangling] in the dust…bitten by bugs.” Let’s hope genital-feeding insects aren’t an issue in your bed.

He writes of Tibetan caravaneers sleeping on their shins [13] when the ground is wet and cold, presumably because the lack of significant muscle in the contact areas reduces heat loss. I tried this out and found it initially uncomfortable, but after some fooling around I managed to get into a fairly comfy spot. The key was sitting back with the hips and resting lighting on the forearms, rather than slumping forward and resting on your head. Try it out.

Then there’s the lookout position [14], where you use your arms as pillows while lying on your stomach. He doesn’t mention what to do with the penis, but I imagine it’s resting on a thigh. This guy is really all about protecting his junk. I guess we all are, though. He’s just honest about it.

My favorite is the quadrupedal lying position [15]. It looks awkward, what with the spine rotation and flexing, but it’s actually pretty darn comfortable. I did have to play around a bit. If you look at the picture, the bottom leg is drawn up pretty closely toward his chest. I found that letting it drop back a bit felt better. Either way, playing with that bottom leg position seems to be key to finding the sweet spot.

It’s interesting that all of the positions he details are couched in utility: protecting the penis from bugs, keeping the ears clear to hear oncoming threats, avoiding cold. In today’s world, most of us rarely, if ever, have to worry about keeping a lookout, or watching for biting bugs, but the fact that our ancestry evolved under similar conditions means that these protective sleeping positions still make sense. Really, though, it’s all about protection. Gokhale’s lying recommendations are designed to protect your musculoskeletal system from degradation and dysfunction, while Tetley’s are primarily about avoiding exogenous dangers (without compromising the body’s form, of course).

Next, I’ll discuss bedding options. Sticking with good sleep posture is most of the battle, but not all of it. In the meantime, let me know about your favorite sleeping positions!