The 4 Instinctual Human Sleeping Positions
Table Of Contents
While traveling, I've seen people squat and sleep in ways that would make my hip flexors and spine simply incinerate.
So what's going on here? What am I missing?
Marketing Has Thrown Our Instinctual Sleep Positions Out Of Whack
I’m not quite sure how they did it but…
but our ancestors got along pretty well without down blankets, sleep numbers and thermogenic grounding blankets.
But to grow every quarter, companies that make sleep products need to continually pump out new products. And more importantly, they have to convince us that you need those products.
And don’t get us wrong – we love a good down quilt. But too much comfort can be suffocating and – as it turns out – painful.
Natural Sleep Positions Can Be Good For Joint Health
I remember back in university I got a memory foam mattress topper that transformed my bed into a cloud. But every day upon waking up, I had to shake off lower back pain.
Now – there could have been a number of confounding factors in this. But I consistently found that by removing the memory foam topper, I got better sleep and woke up without back pain.
By sleeping on the ground in these ancestral sleep positions, Michael Tetley speculates that these 4 natural sleep positions elongate and rejuvinate the spine, which in turn leads to*:
1. Decreased lower back pain
2. Decreased joint pain
Michael Tetley’s 4 Instinctual Human Sleeping Positions
During the 20th century, renowned physiotherapist Michael Tetley visited 14 pre-industrial and indigenous societies in every corner of the globe. He documented four natural human sleeping positions that he witnessed in every single one of these societies.
Here they are;
Instinctual Sleep Position #1: Quadrupedal Lying
For my money, this is the most challenging (and rewarding) natural sleep position on the list, and when I started out I could only hold it for about 5 minutes. But even 5 minutes of lying like this makes my lower back feel great – 10/10 recommend.
Instinctual Sleep Position #2: Lookout Position
Here’s how to keep an eye out when you have the sneaking suspicion your roommate is stealthily taking scoops out of your Ben & Jerry’s…like you wouldn’t notice.
From personal experience, I recommend placing a thin pillow underneath your belly to support your spine on this. Remember – our ancestors assumed this position on the ground – not in made-to-swallow-you mattresses, so lying on your stomach on a soft mattress may result in an unwanted curve of the spine.
Instinctual Sleep Position #3: Arm Pillow
This natural sleep position takes a bit of getting used to – personally it took me a while practicing this posture before the nerve in my arm loosened up enough for me to do this for extended amounts of time.
Position #4: Knee-Supported Side Sleep
I have found this is my preferred sleeping position while using a mattress. It takes little to no flexibility to get into this position and is comfortable for extended periods of time.
This research was inspired by some of the incredible people I met while working remotely and traveling. If you work and play from anywhere, check out our 2-in-1 laptop case below that doubles as a stand.
Michael Tetley: The Man Behind The Research
The man who documented these sleeping positions, Michael Tetley lived a fascinating life. He was born in Nairobi and joined the British Army where he led African soldiers from nine different tribes, and was blinded by a bullet in battle. After this he promptly became one of Britain’s most famous physiologists (while completely blind).
Michael Tetley has embarked on 14 expeditions around the world to study native human populations and their sleeping positions, and the above sleeping positions come from these forays into pre-industrial tribal life.
*This statement based on claims made by Michael Tetley, and these sleep positions are in no way designed to treat, diagnose or cure any musculoskeletal pain, physiological issues, or sleep issues of any sort. Please consult a medical professional.
- Tetley M. (2000). Instinctive sleeping and resting postures: an anthropological and zoological approach to treatment of low back and joint pain. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 321(7276), 1616–1618. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.321.7276.1616