Sleeping on a firm surface increases the ability to relax and go into deeper sleep. It does this by: 1) Optimizing breathing by opening chest and abdomen, 2) stimulating the Relaxation Response by providing a biofeedback loop between the surface and the body, and 3) providing a natural re-alignment mechanism for the spine and joints.
Recently a friend of mine told me she was laying on a boulder along a creek and she thought of me and my crazy method of sleeping on a hard surface. She realized, just like I said, she was somehow able to become extremely relaxed even though it was a boulder of all things. “How does that work?” she asked. “I had nothing at all and I became extremely calm. I even fell asleep for awhile.”
I explained to her the discovery I made that not only changed my life but that of thousands of others who followed my progress in the paleo community.
I published an article “Sweet Dreams on a Hard Surface”, that I thought was a mere personal obsession noone would be interested in. That article went viral in the paleoshpere three years after published and became the groundbreaking research on the subject of sleep ergonomics with an ancestral-point-of-view.
Here is are a couple of responses in the discussion of sleeping on the floor.
I’ve started sleeping on the floor myself, strangely enough after experimenting with martial arts roll and trying to find the most harmless way to naturally lay my body on a hard floor: I thought the best way would be to simply lie there for an extended period of time.”
I’m discovering more benefits to sleeping on hard surfaces every day, like needing fewer hours of sleep, waking up fast and fresh and feeling more ‘muscle-ready’, automatically correcting back position and of course saving money on furniture, while recycling sleeping space for other purposes and being a more adaptable individual.
We’re all familiar with barefoot walking by now. And also, the idea that our modern environment–including shoes–often deprives us of natural movement and other things like sunlight. Sleeping on a hard surface is akin to barefoot walking.
I was intuitively drawn to the floor and the ground. As a teenager I started sleeping outside my apartment complex in Lawrence, Kansas, dragging sleeping bag and groundcloth onto the dew or frost covered grass. At the same time, I started wearing moccasins or going barefoot and was fascinated at everything that could bring me closer to the ground and the elements.
It’s not a big deal to camp out and ‘give up’ some things for awhile. But that’s not what I was after. My question was, why do we have a mattress at all? And the idea of asceticism, being able to handle tough situations, was not it either. I simply wanted to sleep and feel the best possible and not depend on some giant institution somewhere out there that I could not trust for something so basic it seems like a natural birthright.
Something just didn’t make sense with all the commercial marketing hype, which made bold and scientifically empty claims–about this or that new technology being the perfect sleep solution. I was trying different surfaces like sand on a beach, boulders by a creek, the forest floor, and they all worked far better than a bed. How could I mimic these surfaces in the house? Finally I found the perfect thing–nothing….at least practically nothing.
At first I was somewhat apologetic about my sleep choices. It can be seen as rude when staying over at a friend’s house. People got used to me as I insisted on sleeping on their porch or their yard with no valid excuse. Finally I ran across documentation about the Japanese health pioneer Katsuzo Nishi. Nishi published a book in 1927 detailing a system of exercises and practices which include sleeping on a hard surface such as a board, to help with spinal alignment and circulation.
And then another more modern research paper by physiotherapist Michael Tetley, “Instinctive sleeping and resting postures: an anthropological and zoological approach to treatment of low back and joint pain”, further confirmed my ideas. Tetley’s experience living with primitive cultures demonstrated natural alignment mechanisms when resting and sleeping on hard surfaces. When there is no mattress to sink into, the body pushes up against the sleep surface as the person is breathing–a natural kick-back mechanism. Each breath builds and then releases tension so the vertebrae and joints realign themselves. The joints also stay lubricated this way.
Even so, you might be thinking, “That seems so uncomfortable…sleeping on the floor.”
If being on the floor is so uncomfortable, why do you use the floor in movement therapies like yoga, Feldenkrais. Think Shivasana…total release and letting go. The yoga instructor might guide you through feeling each part of your body. Relaxing it. Once the entire body is relaxed evenly throughout, there is a sensation of floating. That is the ultimate ‘soft’ we are all looking for. Where there is no muscle tension, and a corresponding feeling of ease and wellbeing.
The floor gives us resistance…or a biofeedback mechanism. We feel the floor. We relax that part of the body. If you are on a soft mattress, you can’t get that proprioception. You loose contact with your body, letting the bed do the work.
You might argue, Shavasana is only about 15 minutes and sleeping is usually longer than that. So once you learn to relax, you stay relaxed. Let’s say you start to tense a part of your body again at some point or something is out of alignment and thus feeling pain. That’s exactly when you need this the most. When given the natural environment, our bodies can become aligned and stay aligned through natural every day–and every night–activities.
Pressure points are areas of the body that feel the surface and experience pain or pressure. Some of these can be released through kinesthetic awareness and control, letting go. Some can be relieved from movement therapies and body work. And some can be release through simple primal movements, including sleeping on a hard surface. These all work together for the total experience.
The pervading issue in our society is the forward slumped posture from chair sitting. This is usually the first thing people run into when sleeping on a firm surface. They are literally bent out of shape and flattening out–that is–putting the body in good alignment–actually hurts. This is pretty much the instigator of the majority of the so called ‘pressure points’. This slump is exacerbated by the modern bed which allows us to be out of alignment without feeling it. My theory is, beds have become so ridiculously over-engineered because our society has become ever more fragile and slumped.
Besides alignment, the hard surface sleeping method has another huge benefit to quality sleep–The Relaxation Effect. This is a mechanism where the parasympathetic nervous system is predominant, heart rate and blood pressure slow down, breathing becomes deeper, adrenalin and cortisol decrease, and brain waves go into the area of theta and beyond. Also you feel peaceful, and produce endorphines which both help you fall asleep easier as well as take you to deeper stages of sleep. The Relaxation Effect is from two synergistic effects: 1) air intake optimizes because the lungs and abdomen are opened. This induces deeper breathing and also better oxygenates the blood. 2) The action of tension and release. The body feels the surface. It must relax each muscle and cell in an even amount. If there is any part of the body ‘holding’ tension, it will hurt. So the body creates a relationship with the surface. There is interaction going on. This tension and release is an instinctual part of primal life that modern society has taken away under the flawed assumption that we should not feel resistance.
Can you go home and start sleeping on the floor…like tonight?
Before I can answer that, I need to address the fact this whole sleeping phenomenon is related to a much bigger picture. It is like barefoot walking. You could just cold turkey throw away your shoes, but you will likely suffer and may even experience injury. First off, the body has atrophied and been shaped and trained to inhabit your habitat a certain way. If you change your habitat, your body is still shaped the way it has interacted in the past. So before jumping into the hard surface, you need to understand the dynamics of what is going on.
If you are slumped (collapsed) part of the day and not the other part, you can be working against yourself. Particularly, sitting in chairs should be replaced with movement-friendly habits like standing and floor sitting. Nonetheless, you need to start somewhere. Just be aware, it is not just about sleeping. It is about the entire lifestyle and how you use your body during the whole 24 hour day/night cycle that influences your success with Primal Sleeping.
1) Make yourself a pallet on the floor, using folded blankets and other mats. Or buy stuff I designed such as the Tatami Mat, Paleo Pad™ and EcoSquare™ slatted platform frame units.
2) Use only non-synthetic materials since they are grounding. Wool has a natural resiliency that works better than any other material I have found. Hardwood or tile floor is far better than carpeted. Besides the toxins offgassing from the carpet, it is also ungrounding. Meaning, synthetic materials short circuit the body’s natural electrical system (neuro-signaling gets interrupted) and cellular respiration. All of these things disrupt sleep hormones.
3) When laying on the back, place a pillow under the knees if you need to. That slight bend will create more curve in the lower back. Often that is enough to relieve the tension there. And this is a natural form of establishing/maintaining the natural curve of the back. This method can help rebuild alignment. Eventually you may get to the point where your spine keeps its natural curve even without a pillow under the knees. Alternatively sometimes I place a rolled up sock or similar sized cushion under the middle of my lower back.
4) When lying on the side, use this technique to reduce the pressure points on the hips. Push one knee to the front or back of the other knee. In other words, do not keep knees together, one on top of the other.
5) There are many creative positions. I think of sleep as restorative yoga. When you shift positions, that can be a good thing when it happens instinctually. The body knows where and how it needs tweaked, when given a chance. Look at all the cool positions babies put themselves into. We will do well to copy.
6) Start where you are comfortable or on the edge of comfort. Start with a few layers of padding. Then decrease layers gradually. Play with everything. Keep exploring your edge. Keep pushing your edge when it feels good.
7) Adopt a Movement Lifestyle and find the therapies and practices that work for you. Consider yoga, Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, body rolling, dance, body work therapies like Rolfing, Chiropractic, Massage, etc.
8) Learn how to get down to the floor and up with healthy body movements. (See video) Think of this as another opportunity to regain the healthy movement our modern environment has deprived us of, rather than an inconvenience. It’s not a disadvantage, it’s an advantage.
9) Learn to relax every cell of your body in equal amounts so you feel like you are floating. Here is a guided meditation you can listen to while you lay down.
10) This is a personal process, as you are changing your relationship to sleep, your lifestyle, your culture, your paradigm. Play with these ideas and make them your own.
Keep your bed nearby just in case you need to bail. A quality sleep takes precedence over any future gains from adopting more healthy sleeping patterns. It usually takes some practice and training as you are re-adapting. You are creating new neuro-pathways as you reaquaint yourself with the primal act of laying on the ground or hard surface.
Watch this video for a walk through of the details of this article.
One person’s experience with adopting a firm sleeping surface:
It took me 6 weeks to transition from sleeping on an 12″ memory foam mattress to basically a thick pad on the floor. I’d start out on my back on the floor until pain woke me up. That was my body stretching out. I’d finish the night on the old mattress. the time I could sleep on the thin pad gradually got longer and longer. It took about 6 weeks for my connective tissues in my back, neck, shoulders and pelvis to lengthen comfortably so that when my body was stretched out at night on a firm surface, I wasn’t being woken up in pain. It’s like yoga. It takes some time to get into the deeper poses. If you hold a *stretch* too long, you get pain, injury. Gradually I lengthened. Then after being able to sleep consistently through the night on the floor for two weeks, I sold the soft bed.
Reshaping the spine takes a long time. I got good results by switching to the firmest/thinnest mattress I could tolerate. It’s more like a shikibuton. Also Used Jeah K. Kessha‘s body -friendly furniture for healthy siting, trashed the sofa, lots of walking and standing, 0-barely elevated heels on footwear, massage, body awareness exercises.
I’m also a medical massage therapist helping people with their backs and postures. Little changes at a time. I often give self care homework of laying on the floor, supine, for about 10-15 minutes a day.
Laura Sobel LMT