My lungs felt like they were going to burst as I clawed my way toward the light above. The urge to breath was overwhelming, but until I broke the surface I knew it would be certain death. Why wasn't the light getting any closer? Just as I resigned myself to this watery death, mercifully, I woke up.
I was gasping and drenched in sweat as I was released from this nightmare for the second time in a month. Looking around with gratitude at being alive, my wife Rebecca sleeping soundly beside me, I noticed that the clerestory windows above our bed set the depth of my drowning. I started connecting the dots to my dry throat in the morning, snoring awake in meditation as my soft palate collapsed, the daily grogginess. I had heard from friends about the solutions they had found, from tape on the nose to dental devices to CPAC machines they lugged on trips to hum beside them on the hotel nightstand. Having thoroughly worked myself into a waking nightmare, I was determined to delay this future, but how?
How can a hard palette be the answer to a soft one?
I remember my first snork, lying in corpse pose at the end of a yoga class years ago. This was a class I was teaching so I wasn’t even dropping into deep meditation when suddenly a loud snork jolted me out of the zone. It was me. My soft palate had collapsed, stopping my slow breath. “Welcome to middle age,” I thought. Around the same time I had noticed, I could fully relax while face down on a massage table, no snork. What if I could train myself to sleep on my stomach? Babies do it, toddlers do it.
My first few efforts were not successful. I merely started the night’s sleep on my stomach. Thank goodness I was exhausted enough to actually fall asleep before my arms followed suit. If I wasn’t woken up by numb hands and arms, I would wake up on my side or back. My pillow was too big. I was shocked at how inflexible I was. But the drowning dreams stopped, I had fewer kinks in my neck, and it was heavenly falling asleep without having to be conscious about where my tongue was, or whether the back of my throat was relaxed or not.
For the first six months, this was my secret experiment. It seemed weird and looking on the internet for reassurance returned a consensus that stomach sleeping was a dangerous habit. By the internet’s account, if you are a stomach sleeper, all sort of neck and low back issues will develop. But I felt better. So I kept at it. I discovered that a soft mattress made stomach sleeping more difficult. The firmer the surface, the longer I stayed on my stomach, and the more likely I was to roll back to my stomach if I awoke on another side.
Rebecca was very tolerant as I devised various schemes to stiffen my side of the mattress. Living with an inventor, she’s refined her amusement into a fine screen that looks like patience to me. I remembered that my father had a piece of plywood under his side of the bed, decades before sleep numbers. So I started there. My side of the bed got firmer and firmer. I moved the wooden board from under the mattress to on top of it, covered first with an inch of foam, then reduced that to a thick yoga mat. After my snoring faded, Rebecca was sold. If she did catch me in a snore, it was much easier for her to get me to roll over. I was more pleasant during the day, she got a better night’s sleep, I stopped complaining of sore throats and stiff necks, so the experiment continued.
What about your neck?
For the first year and a half of this experiment, I had a nagging fear that I was setting myself up for long-term damage to my neck and lower back. The deeper motivation that was driving me past fears of neck damage or seeming eccentric came from my determination not to repeat the limited mobility of my parents. My mother has been severely disabled by arthritis most of her adult life. Her deeply gnarled fingers and feet are the most visible price this once gifted painter and musician has paid. She’s become bedridden by her 80’s. By his mid-forties my father couldn’t turn his head when backing the car out of the driveway. He was forced to rotate his entire upper torso to get a look behind. I’ve been determined to not let my genetic heritage take me down that same path, so I’ve jealously guarded my mobility.
I can still recall wincing in pain simply watching my nephew Joe, then a High School wrestler, as he demonstrated one of their exercises. He would arch up from a hardwood floor with nothing supporting him but the top of his head and his feet. Back then I was starting to see my parents' limitations creeping in. I used to have to be very careful turning over in bed not to use my head to help lift up my torso. If I was lying face up and forgot, the quick jolt of pain would soon remind me I still had this habit. Nowadays I just arch my neck and back, rolling over without concern. Now that I’m well into the third year of this project, I’m completely relaxed about my neck. It’s rare now for me to wake in the morning with a crick or pinched nerve, and how flexible my shoulders have become. I still put in the same amount of physical exertion for my work every day. Now I’m coming home from a day of tuning pianos and packing Soul Seats with fatigue alone, and not the old aches and pains. Many days I’d come home exhausted enough to take a quick power nap right on the floor.
I’ve had every kind of alternate pillow over the years, trying to keep my neck from being in chronic pain. After trying various thicknesses, and no pillow at all sometimes, I noticed that the recurring cricks in my neck that I was used to waking up with for the last thirty years were a thing of the past. It had to do with what I was doing with my arms and shoulders. Sleeping on your stomach is an extended shoulder stretch, particularly the firmer the surface you sleep on. As my shoulders opened up, they no longer took their tightness out on my neck. During this early stage, I discovered that shifting positions became easier and easier and that the discomfort I felt in the morning from a too soft mattress was because I hadn't shifted positions often enough. Once I got my side of the bed firm enough, I found I could sleep just as far through the night on the floor with the added benefit of stretching my arms fully overhead.
Eventually, I worked up the nerve to mention my experiment to a couple of friends and was surprised to find that one of the tallest folks I know said he had always preferred sleeping on his stomach. Another friend remembered having his doctor prescribe sleeping on the floor to recover from a back strain he suffered as a high school wrestler. The more I shared my experiment, the more memories people recalled of relatives or friends who preferred stomach sleep, and even floor sleep. It’s fun to have Rebecca present when sharing with friends my new sleeping preferences. Their first question after, “But what about your neck?” is, “Does Rebecca sleep on the floor as well?” They keep an eye on her, gauging her response, relieved to see a twinkle in her eye as she reports that no, she still sleeps in the bed.
The floor beckons
It was a lazy Saturday morning, crisp sunlight falling on the wall across from the clerestory. I was in no hurry to get up. Cradled comfortably in the sheets I lounged in that sweet space between slumber and an alert mind, where the night’s dreams are easily savored. But I’m not in a bed. I’m on the floor, with only a sheet between me and the carpet. And I’ve been here for eight hours. How can I be so comfortable? That’s the day I knew this was no longer just an experiment. No, this was my preferred way to sleep.
Have you ever had floor sleeping prescribed to you?
What’s been your love/hate relationship with the Western mattress?
Here’s a link to Michele McGinnis’s blog post whose title is a nice twist on “Sitting is the New Smoking”. Like me, she’s a big fan of Katy Bowman and Nutritious Movement. Michele includes Katy’s checklist for transitioning from a conventional mattress.
Here’s a nice summary from the British Medical Journal, how we mammals still sleep without mattresses and are healthier for it.