Michael Tetley’s “Instinctive sleeping and resting postures” promotes a minimalistic way of sleeping and resting, without the use of expensive soft mattresses or pillows for comfort. According to Michael, forest dwellers, nomads and animals suffer fewer musculoskeletal lesions than “civilised” people. A shift towards their resting habits could help us treat many musculoskeletal and joint problems.
Could it really be that our addiction to comfort during sleep is one of the root causes of many of our modern ailments like lower back and neck pains? Biomechanist Katy Bowman, author of best-selling books Move Your DNA and Movement Matters sure thinks so.
Just as constant shoe-wearing and flat, unvarying terrain have left you with poor foot mobility and strength, always sleeping on something flat and squishy has altered the mobility and sensitivity of your parts. The joint-alterations required for ground-sleeping are natural and they’re currently under used. Your muscles are simply out of (sleep) shape.
Many movement experts agree that a varied movement practice is optimal for our health and well-being. A great variety of movements in your joints helps keep your joints soft, loose and lubricated. Neglecting a certain area will calcify, harden and desensitise this area. This is why people who never move through full ranges of motion, cannot move through full ranges of motion. If your body never goes through a full squat, probably you won’t be able to do a full squat. Makes complete sense right? This same principle applies to sleep. When sleeping with cushioning, your body cycles through just a few different sleeping positions. It has no incentive to constantly switch positions as the pillows provide for comfort. Without cushioning, sleeping becomes vastly more uncomfortable and the body becomes incentivised to cycle through a much broader range of positions. And an increase in both frequency and volume of low-intensity movement keeps your body younger and healthier. This is why dancers appear to move so softly and exhibit such beautiful ranges of motion. Ido Portal beautifully clarifies this principle in Secret of longevity:
If you’ve ever owned a cat or a dog, you probably know that animals sleep in the weirdest places and positions – whenever they like. Many of us humans have lost this ability to just lie down and snooze wherever they are. We never get comfortable enough without a thick mattress and pillow. But actually, we were born with this innate ability. Small children, just like animals, don’t need soft mattresses or pillows to fall asleep, they just do.
In order to change our sleeping habits, we need to take a look at how animals, children and native peoples do. Although there are slight variations, the underlying patterns are usually the same: lying on our backs, sides and stomach.
Before making any changes, remember that your body has adapted to years of sleeping on soft surfaces, so it is probably wise to introduce changes slowly and gradually. But if you’re not that patient (just like me) and decide to ditch the comfort right away, usually about a week of suffering from terrible sleep and numb arms will do the trick. I have been sleeping on a very thin, 5cm mattress on the plain floor for several years now and have been free of back pains ever since. After I adapted to this way of sleeping, thick mattresses started to become really uncomfortable. Only recently have I introduced myself to sleeping without a pillow, which I am still accustoming to, it is much harder than shifting mattresses.
Sleeping and resting postures promoted by Michael Tetley
Make sure to read Michael’s article “Instinctive sleeping and resting postures” for a more detailed explanation of these positions. It also includes non-sleep-specific material not covered in this article.
#1 The Side-Lying Position
This position is highly beneficial from a survival point of view as it leaves both ears available to listen for unexpected sounds. The neck is fully supported by the arm.
In colder climates, people have adapted to sleeping on their shins. The amount of soft tissue in contact with the earth’s surface is reduced, resulting in more optimal heat retention. And funnily enough, this is one of the most commonly used positions by little children.
#3 The Lookout Position
This position is again beneficial from a survival point of view, as it allows you to keep guard of a specific area while resting at the same time. The neck is also fully supported.
#4 Quadrupedal Lying
References and further sources
- Katie Bowman on the Joe Rogan Podcast, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ub5OLNnN-o
- How to transition out of a mattress, https://nutritiousmovement.com/how-to-transition-out-of-a-mattress/
- Your Pillow is an Orthotic, https://nutritiousmovement.com/your-pillow-is-an-orthotic/