How to Sleep

Sleeping Hints: Somatic perspectives to minimize back or neck pain

There is no “correct.” There is nothing that can be said that is true for everyone. Sleeping surfaces and sleeping positions are very individual; what works for one person will not work for the next. It depends on injury history, sleep apnea or not, age, weight, body type, metabolism, flexibility, history of head trauma, body alignment and personal preference or habit. That means you are on your own. You have to trust yourself. Even what is written here may be useless to you – everybody is so different. It is probably true for most people that if you wake up with more back or neck pain than when you got into bed, you need to make changes of some kind:

Choosing a bed/mattress: Comfort is your guide. The first moment you lie down on a bed, it should feel right. Discomfort means you’re not ready yet for that hard a surface or that kind of bed. It is very individual – try many kinds of beds - the more injured you are, the more the pain, usually the softer the bed should be. I wish I could tell you “if you have back pain use a hard bed” but the evidence, my clinical experience and the studies don’t support that.  If you believe that half-truth, it can be a source of pain for the rest of your life. Never force yourself to use a hard bed if you always wake up with more pain than when you went to bed. That means – use a softer bed for now, or make other changes as suggested here. What is true is that if you are able to sleep comfortably on a hard bed, you probably have a supple, healthy spine and back. Coming to that point can involve years of somatic or martial arts training. Young boys in ancient Sparta – were raised on soft beds, and even in the warrior schools, they had soft beds at first. Gradually, year-by-year as they went through the training, their beds became increasingly hard.

Sleeping Position: Little kids will sleep in any position, comfortably. If you can do that, you won’t have spinal curvature (scoliosis etc) since your spine is not fixed in any set pattern. To sleep creatively like this bespeaks of flexibility, adaptability – youth.

Nonetheless, as we age, we need to protect our necks by sleeping on our backs. Past a certain age, it is best to avoid sleeping on the stomach, unless your neck is perfectly OK with it. The cranial bones get distorted, as well, over time, from side lying or stomach lying. Some osteopaths teach that side lying will narrow the airway over time, causing sleep apnea to get worse. Yet, most apneacs sleep on their side, because they get temporary relief to breathe easier that way. This topic is not simple. Paradoxically, all wild mammals sleep belly down, to protect their viscera (unless they stand up to sleep, like some do). Their body feels safer that way – women who have been abused, this may be the best position. But – please notice – mammals sleeping belly down are curled into flexion, chin is tucked in. If you want to sleep on your belly, draw one leg up, curl your chin in at least a little bit.  Those who want to connect to their mammalian heritage will want to learn to sleep face down. There are many benefits: it is how we learn to lift the head and crawl as an infant. Belly up – the legs and arms are useless, like an overturned bug. It is not a functional position in the mammal-sense. But in the higher, human and spiritual-surrender sense, sleeping belly up makes a lot of sense. Particularly, it protects the neck and it makes breathing easier, since as we age, our breathing gets very “frontal” meaning the belly and ribs in front over-move, and we don’t easily breathing “into the back”. To all of a sudden, at age 50, say, start sleeping face down, would be foolish. You’d be wiser to take a couple years of movement classes first. 

If you can train yourself to sleep on your back, with small cushions under the knees and the neck – you will never wake up with neck pain, you will breathe more easily, you can also learn to surrender – in a spiritual sense – because “belly up” is a type of body language for surrender. What does a dog do – who trusts you – when you pet it?

Try using a Body Pillow. You can purchase these at many department stores or online.  These are long pillows that you can use as you lie flat, belly down. Stuff the pillow under one side of the body, and turn your head to that side. You’ll probably need a separate pillow for your head, to adjust independently.  Draw up the leg on that side. This means you are half way on your side, half way on your stomach. It can be very comfortable, and it is worth a try, for several weeks, to see if it helps you. Your neck is protected. Your belly/chest and abdomen are supported and feel soothed and protected, like a mammal that wants to protect that area while sleeping. There is something primal and soothing about that; some people can’t do without it. So now you don’t need to depend on a sleeping partner for that; a body pillow will do it too.  It was a popular practice in India, in ancient days. Generally I have found ancient practices are beneficial and safe.

Bed Sheets and Nightwear. Silk or satin sheets allow you to slip and slide as you toss and turn at night. If you wear cotton and your sheets are cotton – they “stick” together hindering movement. That means neck, hip or back pain when you wake up: your body got kinked because you were stuck in one configuration too long at 2:25 AM, you were half-asleep and too drowsy to adjust yourself, although you did feel a definite impulse, to do so. But because it was too much work to lift the head and move it, you ignored that little voice. This would not be the case with satin or silk sheets, or with silk nightwear.

Other considerations: Yoga classes or movement classes will give the body familiarity or competence to easily adjust position – move appropriately – at any time during the night. If we plop in bed, and don’t move for 8 hours, chances are we will have pains in the morning. We want to avoid that.

Before Bed: We want relaxed eyes, relaxed body. Most of us are spending our days looking down, rarely changing focus, with near vision. It is like being hypnotized. It seems so normal now; we think there is no other way to be. I cringe when I mentally compare the deadened, critical, unhappy, squinting, downward gazing and staring eyes I see today to what I remember from the 1950’s while growing up in small town Washington state. Our lifestyle today has caused (for practically everyone) our eyeballs get elongated and hold near vision tension (inward rotation of eyes, convergence, elongation, cilliary muscles tensing). Should we also sleep that way? No. Before bed,  just a little work with vision and the eyes goes a long way. The routine I personally use is given in a separate handout; however it is a very personal thing – you need to create or find a routine or method that makes sense to you. What works for me maybe won’t work as well for you, if it works at all. It is good to make a customized routine that fits your needs and matches your understanding and your time constraints; but in any case, your routine should be done daily as a counter-balance to the damage from computers, TV and excess reading. It should: moderate eyeball elongation, restore ability to look up easily, widen your visual field, remind your brain that awareness of the spine and body can be fully present while using the eyes in any way (instead most of us lose that connection and draw our head forward being so enticed and identified with what is “out there”), restore memory and ability of the “trailing eye” to cross midline as you look to the side, refresh memory of letting the eyes turn first with the head restfully following (instead of jerking head first), wake up lazy-to-move eyes, and encourage focusing near to far and back. Eyes like that can dream with real life and color and movement. Dead and staring eyes – what can of dreams can a mind like that create? This has everything to do with back pain; dead staring eyes, no change of focus, collapsed visual field – means the body is tense. It’s body language for trauma! Never sleep like that.  Pain increases that way. You may think it is your bed that is causing you pain or insomnia, when actually it is your eyes!

It is wise to meditate or do relaxation exercises, listen to music, etc before bed. If you watch TV or read in bed – you are going to sleep with eyes that do not change focus, that like to stare, with the analytical left brain mind over-activated.  

Exercise Before Bed? Yes, but slow and gentle movements, like certain kinds of yoga. This will move the lymph, you’ll sleep better. The best kind of exercise before bed is lying face up on a six-inch Styrofoam roller – or tightly rolled blanket - along the spine. My mentors were often reminding me about this point. Lie like that for 5 to 15 minutes, even doing nothing more is beneficial. Slowly move arms, rock legs left and right. The contact of the roller to the spine relaxes the spine. Gravity takes the stress pattern out of the body by opening it “out” as you lie there.

© Copyright 2015 Steve Hamlin