Adventure Prep, Uncategorized

Upright Sleeping

When my sister lived in a Buddhist retreat, she slept in a box.

This is not the first thing that comes up when you ask what it’s like to spend three years completely sealed in retreat. And as she prepares to take her ordination as a nun, it may not seem like the most important part of her spiritual practice. But for 1600 nights in a row, if she was closing her eyes to sleep it was in the confines of about a 3′ × 3′ wooden container.

It’s not as awful as it sounds. The point is, essentially, that lamas should sleep sitting upright. This way they can do their nighttime practices in the full lotus posture, sleep right where they are in front of their shrine, and wake up to start their morning practices without moving. Or something like that.

But to most people it has no appeal. It’s hard to explain that the box is not a crate, or that it’s quite comfy when you add some pillows. Before her retreat I suggested she stop mentioning this particular part of what she’d be doing. It makes it sound like some kind of extremist cult.

The past few weeks she’s regaled me with the reality of sleeping upright. Several times I watched her peacefully drift off to sleep in improbable places. Her back is board-straight and she moves with grace. It has its perks.

Then I began to think about the applications of sitting upright to sleep. I have no intention of sleeping in a box, but I have this whole “walk 7,000 miles” thing. It will include a lot of nights sleeping outside—probably about 1600—and I’m open to anything to make that easier. Some of the benefits of upright sleep:

  • You stay warmer. The vertical orientation of your body is far more efficient heat-wise.
  • Warmer means no sleeping bag. One lap blanket is all you need. When backpacking, that means less weight to carry.
  • If you wear glasses you can leave them on while you sleep, handy if you need to get up suddenly at night.
  • You can use a smaller tarp over your head and less mosquito netting (no tents here).
  • You develop strong neck and back muscles.
  • When you wake up you’re completely lucid, never groggy. Zangmo and I can’t figure out why this works, but it does.

These are powerful incentives to see if I can acclimate myself to upright sleeping before I start the Adventure. But that’s just two months away! Challenge accepted.

My kid sister Zangmo in her box.

Zangmo told me that when she first started it took her about three months to get used to, and involved intolerable pain and stiffness. However, we don’t believe that’s necessary to learn to do it right: she resisted upright sleeping for a long time, and had bad posture at first.

So I set a piece of particle board against one wall of my room, culled through the pillows and cushions in the house, and fanaggled about an hour of consultation with my resident lama. I’m going to try it for myself.

How will it go? Expect an update next week. In the meantime, has anyone else ever slept sitting up (by choice or out of necessity)? Do you have any other unusual sleep methods that might be of use to fellow adventurers? Hit the comments and speak up. I’d love to learn.

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34 thoughts on “Upright Sleeping

  1. Jaguar in Arkansas. says:

    I have slept upright upon occasion due to sinus issues. I usualy end up slumped over to one side or the other or a stiff neck. My head does not remain upright. Large shoulder pads maybe?

  2. I really, really hate sleeping upright, but that’s probably because, like Jaguar, I’ve done it because I had to. Occasionally, it’s the only way I can breathe. I wake up still upright, but still exhausted.

    That may be more because I’ve been working hard breathing in my sleep, of course. I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to sleep upright without having that impetus … and I just can’t separate them. I feel tired and groggy just thinking about it.

  3. Lynn says:

    Yes, lots of times actually. Usually in the airport, on my desk at school, on the plane, ummm really anywhere. And it sucks! I get such a sore neck

  4. I really want to see how you manage. Hopefully Zangmo will help you speed up your learning curve. I have to say I was incredulous at the idea of sleeping upright. I remember sitting in a chair on a sleeper train from Paris to Madrid because a bed was too expensive. I had to readjust so many times from my ass hurting. It was not a pleasant trip. I also have passed out in recliners, which has never been enjoyable either — I always regret not moving to my bed. Maybe I’m just fat, but I really enjoy a comfortable bed. It’s something I’ve been telling myself I need to start training to live without though. I got a compact hammock I’ll be trying out this summer.

  5. Not voluntarily I have had to sleep sitting up, mostly during the days and nights I was homeless and had no where to rest my head. I’ve slept in baseball dug outs, under tunnels, against trees, on stairways, on concrete, in cars, buses, you name it, all while travelling. When I was homeless, the one thing that was hardest to find was a decent place to sleep. If you’re caught asleep on the sidewalk, in a park, or anywhere in public, you will be rudely woken up by police and security guards. I did not know it was so illegal to be asleep in public until I was homeless. The first time I was homeless was the spring of 1998 after being forced out of my apartment when I lost two jobs at the university (long story) and had no family or friends to count on (at least none who really believed I was homeless — another long story for another time). I was lucky I was homeless in a small city with a large university. Being homeless meant staying sleepless, unless you can find creative ways to sleep.

    I spent four months sleeping upright and learning how to not sleep too deeply, sort of like keeping one eye open, so I could quickly startle myself awake if anyone should walk by and notice I was sleeping. I think this is why, to this day, I have trouble settling into deep sleep and has been the cause for much sleep dysfunction in my life. It was like “cat-napping” — like sleeping on the edge — always anticipating, always on guard.

    The other hardest thing to find was free, public places to take a shower! I had to spend weeks just freshening up in restrooms. Sometimes I would sneak into the YMCA or the university physical education buildings to use the public showers. But that, too, is another story.

    I can still sleep sitting up in a chair and it doesn’t bother me that much. I can comfortably sleep on a concrete floor while tricking my mind into believing it is my bed. Whenever I am too painfully emotional, I will distract myself out of that pain by getting into an uncomfortable position on the floor and deliberately sleep crooked, letting a sore back and neck help me get the overwhelming pain out of my mind. I’ve since learned this is not a healthy way to overcome emotional pain.

    Now that I am no longer 21, my body has other needs, so attempts now to sleep on rocks and boards and concrete does more damage than good to me know. Age 41 is the time when your body needs a little more cushion. Nowadays I have to sleep in a “ramp” position to stay healthy — it is something between being upright and lying down, using pillows to support the neck and back tilted upwards, but not so I’m putting too much pressure on my lower back and spine. This position is the best for preventing migraines and mood swings, back and foot pain, neck strains, and helps to improve my balance and poise. Everyone is different, however. I am a side sleeper. I sleep with my arms outward and keep a pillow or balled up old blanket in between my knees to relieve strain on my back. This is necessary because I am front heavy, I have a bigger belly and large breasts to support; if I sleep on my back too much it gets too painful and it keeps me restless. If you don’t have these balance problems, it should be easier to sleep more completely upright more often.

  6. I’m seeing a recurring – indeed, unanimous – theme here. It sounds like everyone’s experience with upright sleeping has been out of necessity, often under really hard conditions, and as a result no one has had a good experience with it.

    I’m thinking, would anyone enjoy a how-to on sleeping upright without getting stiffness, pain, etc? So far I’ve found it to be restful (if challenging) and haven’t had soreness at all.

    I’m happy to share if people are interested.

    • Actually, I should have added that I did enjoy sleeping upright, once I got used to it. I’m certain anyone can! Sure, Drew, I’d love to read what else you have to say on the subject.

      I almost listed a ton of questions, but decided not to, in order to avoid dominating reply space.

      So far elevated sleeping — that middle ground — for me seems best and would you say that is the healthiest? I did not mean to suggest I was uncomfortable with the stiff “uprightness”…

      * I even still love to sit cross-legged on the floor, prefer it even over sitting in a chair or on a couch, because I got so used to the habit of not having furniture. Even after I finally bought a REAL bed (it was weird to have a new one after sleeping on futons and used mattresses from ’99 — ’07), it’s nice to take a nap every now and then on the ground. *

    • I’d really enjoy reading about it, simply because I’ve never heard about it before. I’d like to try it out sometime. I’ve thought about becoming a monk someday, and this would be one step forward to that!

    • Sure! I actually don’t suffer from either stiffness or pain when I sleep upright. I only suffer from feeling like I got a terrible night’s sleep, and I don’t feel rested at all.

  7. My experience has been from necessity also – sleeping on long haul flights. I have a strong body but that body is not trained to rest in an upright position, so neck strain was the result of these encounters and would usually jolt me awake.

    Interestingly, deep meditation experiences have been had sitting upright, and the “freshness” or lack of grogginess mentioned was noticeable with this too.

  8. MercyFire says:

    I, too, started sleeping propped at an angle due to sinus problems. Even after, though, I still found sleeping in overstuffed chairs most comfortable because I stayed warmer. Zangmo’s ‘nest’ reminds me of those chairs. I’d love to know more about how she does it.

  9. Rua Lupa says:

    I only recall sleeping upright twice – once during a grueling 4 in the morning to 10 at night paddle to our destination in time to catch the train home, and once while waiting for my turn at the phone after the paddle. Fortunately we didn’t have any serious rapids coming our way during that paddle as all of us started sleeping while paddling to the point that we pulled up onto a sandbar for a speed nap so we didn’t kill ourselves. But neither were for an extended period of more than 10 minutes.

    I’ve never heard of intentionally sleeping up right, let alone the benefits of it. I’d be willing to try it if its so beneficial.

  10. I’m not 100% convinced Drew. There’s that feeling of laying to rest after an exhausting day, your entire body sinking as every muscle relaxes and you can finally turn off.

    Although I say this after spending 15 hours on a night bus, I’m sure the neck muscles would build-up and make the task easier.

    For your travels, I’d think laying down would be better for escaping the wind and being able to burrow down for colder nights?

    There’s a tribe in India that come to mind that stand-up for the entire duration of their lives. I take my hat off to that.

    • About the feeling of lying down – my understanding is that when you’re used to sleeping sitting up, it’s every bit as relaxing and satisfying. I haven’t reached that point yet, far from it. My sister said it took her roughly 3 months of doing it every night.

      About the wind – I suppose it depends on conditions, but in general upright sleeping is much warmer.

  11. Drew, I’ve arrived here after reading your guest post at the Minimalists.

    I’ve read it amazed by the fact that so many articles in the press and Internet stating that “sitting is killing us” ( https://www.google.com/search?q=sitting+bad ). So, the simple concept of also be sitting when sleeping only makes me feel as if we were trying to challenge something basic for good health.

    • That’s a good point Alsanan. When I think of the health problems involved in sitting, my understanding is they break into two categories: we sit all day long (instead of being physically active); and we have bad posture.

      Obviously, 8 hours of sleeping sitting upright doesn’t impinge on being physically active during the daytime – certainly not more than lying down for 8 hours – and the tips Zangmo taught me are aimed at establishing good posture when sleeping upright. So, I don’t think upright sleeping would cause health problems, but if you have evidence to the contrary I’m very open to it.

  12. David Landau says:

    I actually think it’s a healthy practice. I’ve slept upright several nights in a row–not out of necessity; I’ve been in my own home, with a nice bedroom at my disposal, but for sentimental reasons, namely my wife’s absence, I’ve opted to sleep sitting upright on our sofa next to our cat. It takes all kinds, doesn’t it? Anyway, I do think that sleeping upright presupposes you have some idea what to do with your body–keeping your neck in a good place, not sinking into your pelvis, and so on–and as I’ve practiced yoga I know a few things in that regard. I’m a respectably healthy 62 of age, for what it’s worth. I’m so keen on the benefits of upright sleep that I’m now looking for ways to do it long-term; I don’t think the sofa is quite what I want for that. I do like the idea of that box! And from my experience of waking from upright sleep, I do feel it puts you a lot closer to the world of activity; getting up is certainly much more convenient. In three words: I’m a fan.

    • David, thanks for this. I agree, sofas are less than ideal although I’m glad you made it work. If you come up with any other creative solutions (or build a “box” of your own?) please let me know!

  13. William says:

    Drew! Thanks so much for the tutorial on sleeping upright have been doing it for 2 weeks now and it’s getting easier and easier! I found your tutorial as I was put onto this Russian doctor Professor Buteyko and he recommends sleeping upright as its better for your oxygen levels! What happens when your ready to move the board away? Do you just sleep up against a wall? Do you find your head doesn’t slump as your body gets used to it?

    • David Landau says:

      I was really in love with sleeping upright until I found after some weeks that I had developed a case of elephantiasis. Mild, to be sure, but as I’m rather vain about my legs and ankles it was devastating. I hypothesized that the upright sleeping was the cause and, sure enough, two or three nights of sleeping prone put my legs and ankles right again. My resolution has been to take an hour or two of sleeping upright every night, just sitting in a chair or on a sofa–I believe it is a much better quality of sleep–and then switching to the bed for the rest. I’m rather looking forward to some long plane or train trip that will give me the pretext for a whole night of it. But my personal chemistry demands that I divide between upright and prone.

      • Hi David, thanks for sharing this and let me say how sorry I am to hear about the elephantiasis (and glad you recovered!). I wasn’t familiar with that condition and did some reading. It does indeed sound devastating.

        While I don’t want to undermine your experience, and I’m not a doctor, I should say that it appears elephantiasis is not caused by posture. It’s caused either by parasites or by irritants picked up from the soil or environment.

        Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephantiasis#Causes

        I think that’s important for other readers to understand as there is no evidence that sleeping posture can cause elephantiasis. I am not suggesting you go back to full nights of upright sleeping, as you should do whatever you feel is best for your own health. I would suggest however to consider whether some other factor (irritants where you were sleeping upright?) could have been the true cause, or whether you may have misdiagnosed some other kind of swelling as elephantiasis.

        These are just my thoughts after doing some basic research – I offer them with respect.

        • David Landau says:

          No worries, Drew. I’m not a doctor either, and elephantiasis might not be a precise term for what I had–in the same way that “crazy” might not be a clinically accurate term although it suffices to describe certain kinds of behavior. What I had looked like elephantiasis. The speed with which I was able to correct it by mixing upright sleeping with prone was a god clue. All bodies are different, and no two will react to the same stimulus in the same way. Suffice it to say that nowadays I never go prone without first getting my quotient of upright, as the upright really does give me the better quality of rest.

    • Hi William, thanks for taking the time to reply and for your kind words.

      It’s not so much when you move the board away, as whether. You could certainly keep using the board indefinitely and get the benefits I talked about.

      It is possible to sit in a more fully upright position, but you’ll need a way to keep from slumping forward. The pillow behind the back might be enough for some people, but for others the head will fall forward as you fall asleep. In my sister’s monastery, for example, the “boxes” (my term) that they sleep in do include a slightly inclined rear wall so you don’t fall forward.

      I have slept upright against trees outside a few times. One night I found a tree with a little bit of a slant and curve to it so it was more like the board. Other times it was more like sleeping against a wall. I found those nights very hard.

    • Paddy, I checked and it is not in my spam filter. It looks like it didn’t go through on your end, perhaps a connectivity error or similar? I’m sorry, I know how frustrating that is. I’ve lost comments on other sites occasionally.

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