4 Instinctual Human Sleeping Positions

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The 4 Instinctual Human Sleeping Positions


Male sleeping in instinctual human sleeping position on African Savannah


Table Of Contents

  1. Quadrupedal Lying
  2. Lookout Position
  3. Arm Pillow
  4. Knee-Supported Side Sleep
  5. Michael Tetley


Working remotely, I'm lucky enough to travel around and see how people live, how they work, and how they rest. I've seen people squat and sleep in ways that would make my hip flexors and spine simply evaporate.

So what's going on here? What am I missing?

Where Did Instinctual Sleep Positions Go?

Marketing Has Thrown Our Instinctual Sleep Positions Out Of Whack

I’m not quite sure how they did it, but our ancestors got along pretty well without Egyptian cotton sheets, sleep numbers and thermogenic grounding blankets.

But to grow every quarter, companies need to continually pump out new products. And more importantly, they have to convince us that you need those products to live better.

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

By sleeping on the ground in these ancestral sleep positions, Michael Tetley speculates that these 4 natural sleep positions elongate and rejuvenate 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


Image of human quadrupedal lying in instinctual sleeping position


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


Human in lookout position, an instinctual sleeping 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


Human side sleeping, an instinctual human sleeping position


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


Human in knee-supported side sleep, an instinctual human sleeping position


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.

Who Was Michael Tetley? The Man Behind The Sleep Positions 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.