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How to Sleep Sitting Up

This spring I wrote about how my sister, Zangmo, sleeps sitting up every night—and how I was learning to do the same.

Many of you wanted to know how to do this, and how to make it comfortable. I’ve written a guide which is now available over on The Minimalists.

Where upright sleeping really shines is on a bus or in a friend’s living room. Once you become proficient you can sleep truly anywhere, never worrying about what the mattress will be like. Bad hotel beds, air mattresses, futons—these will be things of the past.

For the step-by-step photo essay, see How to Sleep Sitting Up.

L Days cover_front only_half size

My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.

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13 thoughts on “How to Sleep Sitting Up

  1. I was wondering what you would do with the head if you normally have the wobbly head issue–so a head seat belt would do the trick!

    What you said at the end about a better but lighter sleep made me think of yoga nidra, as least from what I know about and have tried. It sounds like you are resting in a different brain wave than what one normally gets to with traditional sleep. From Swami Satyananda Sarasvati’s book Yoga Nidra:

    “During the practice of yoga nidra, periodic bursts of alpha waves are interspersed between alternating periods of beta and theta predominance. This means that the consciousness is poised on the borderline between wakefulness and sleep for an extended period, fluctuating cyclically between extroversion and introversion. Extroversion leads to wakeful, sensory awareness, and introversion into dreaming sleep. By remaining aware and alert in the alpha predominant state between these two, a profound experience of total relaxation is gained, which is not only far more beneficial than conventional sleep, but is also the doorway to higher states of consciousness.”

    • That sounds spot-on to me. Well, the part about what the sleep state feels like; I know nothing about brain waves. Interestingly, a friend told me that a primitivist teacher talks about a similar sleep state when “cold sleeping” out in the wild.

      Thank you for sharing this, Grace!

  2. Wife and Mom of 5 says:

    I began attempting this about a week ago and am already falling asleep and staying asleep most of the night. I have TMJ and use a mouth piece yet have always awoken with a sore jaw and neck. I also usually awake with a sore back, hip or wrist in spite of sleeping on a Tempur Pedic bed. I have had NO pain or soreness since I have begun sleeping sitting up. I sleep in bed next to my husband, but sitting. I use a triangle pillow rather than a board to get the 70 degree angle. This has been the best new “adventure” I have tried in years. Thank you for sharing this info. and giving details in how to succeed at it. Thanks to your sister too!

    • I’m so happy! I strongly suspected this would be therapeutic and help people with conditions like sleep apnea, but I hadn’t even thought of things like TMJ. Thanks for telling me this, Mom of 5, and welcome to Rogue Priest!

  3. Great idea. I stumbled on the ability by accident (after years of meditating sometimes included falling asleep during meditation and/or the deep states the first commenter mentioned) and it makes for great convenience on long flights, in waiting rooms, or just for naps. Never tried doing it all night, but that could be interesting.

    • Thanks for sharing that Ona. I think the more people can see that others do it successfully, the less timid they are about trying it themselves. Let me know if you do try it for all-night sleep! And welcome to Rogue Priest :)

  4. Hi Drew,

    I read your article over at The Minimalists, but I’m a speculative person. I really like the idea of sitting up and of course, Buddhist nuns seem to be very healthy people. But, why hasn’t this idea been addressed before? And although I had news sites, I came across this:

    However, sleeping upright does present some concerns. First of all, sitting motionless with bent limbs for more than a couple of hours can lead to the development of deep vein thrombosis, a type of blood clotting in large veins which can be fatal if it travels to the lungs. (Source: slate.com)

    What is your response to this? Is it valid? Thanks for your time.

    • Cole, thank you for this comment. First off, your “I came across this:” link seems to be missing.

      But to your other concern, you are right about DVT. It can even happen sitting still on long flights, etc. Here are my thoughts on it.

      I’m not a doctor, and I recommend talking to a physician before trusting anything I say :) But I am aware that some people are at higher risk of DVT than others. If someone who suffers from obesity, diabetes, low blood pressure or poor circulation (among other factors) there is a high risk of DVT. I doubt someone in those categories should consider upright sleeping.

      If DVT is a concern, there are special socks designed to prevent it from happening. These are sometimes prescribed to patients at high DVT risk. The socks are specially fitted to put pressure on the foot, ankle and leg and keep the blood flowing. These can be worn on long flights, or after surgery when someone is immobile, to help prevent DVT.

      It’s also worth noting that sleeping upright does not require bent legs. For instance I often stretch my legs out straight in front of me, especially when sleeping outside. If you have a good upright sleeping posture the outstretched legs won’t affect your stability, though you will not stay as warm as you will with crossed legs.

      Again, these are just my armchair thoughts. If you are at a high DVT risk (or have any other conditions that might be affected by changing your sleep posture) please talk to a doctor before trying it!

      And thanks for asking this. Welcome Rogue Priest!

  5. Laure says:

    In nursing school, we learned about the dangers of being a bed for too long. More recently, we have learned that prolonged sitting isn’t good either – promoting a head-forward posture and other back issues. And I learned the hard way that it can cause sciatica. A car accident 18 months ago had me sleeping-sitting-up for 6 weeks, and I’ve definitely used the sleep-sitting-up approach when I had too much nasal congestion and allergies to use my cpap successfully (for apnea), but it led to problems with my posture. Still, I was always so much more refreshed after sleeping sitting up than I was after a night laying down (with or without the machine). I’m encouraged to try sitting up at night again, but I don’t actually want another bout with sciatica. Do you know any sitting-sleepers with tips for people who already have back/posture issues?

    • Hi Laure. These are great points and great questions. I’d love to know more about the posture issues caused by extended sitting, and whether that was using controlled posture as recommended here or if it involved non-ergonomic sitting such as at a computer, etc. Do you happen to know the answer to that?

      I don’t know much about sciatica and I’m not a doctor, so I don’t think I can give advice on whether upright sleeping might be right for you. I would definitely consider the posture you used last time though and ask yourself if that may have been part of the cause. The steps described here have helped me successfully maintain a comfortable posture throughout the night and wake up without any neck or back problems, but I would talk to a doctor before attempting it if you’re not sure.

  6. Frank says:

    Hi Drew, I’m currently trying to practice how to sleep sitting up and came across this article on theminimalists.com
    http//www.theminimalists.com/drew/

    My main problem is with numb legs. As I sit at 90 degrees, stretching my legs out is very uncomfortable as it stretches the lower back out and puts a strain on my lower back. But I can’t sit for long in a cross leg position (whether burmese style or half lotus) as it gets numb then painful within an hour. Then I’ll be woken up by the discomfort and have to change position. I get frustrated by this so end up sleeping in the bed again.

    How do you deal with this? How did your sister manage to sit in that position for 5 hours straight in a deep sleep?

    Your comment will be much appreciated.

    • Hi Frank,

      First off I would say talk to a doctor because circulation is important and I NOT have medical credentials. All I can talk about is my own experience.

      With that said, the way I learned it does involve a lot of numb legs. If sitting in a cross legged position for hours you will definitely have your legs fall asleep. My sister reported that it took several months, and many nights of agony before she could sleep peacefully through the night. She would wake up in pain, stretch her legs, and either force herself back into the position or sprawl out on the floor only to try again the next night. I cannot say whether this “play through the pain” approach is a good idea medically. I can tell you that she eventually reached a point where she can stay in the cross legged position indefinitely and can get up without pain or, I presume, numbness. She got used to it.

      For myself, not being a monk or a sadist, I simply didn’t use a cross legged position. Or I only lightly crossed the legs, with one in front of the other rather than right on top of it, if you can picture that. This simply took the numbness largely out of the equation. Sitting on a cushion could also help.

      Last, consider using a recliner as your training vehicle. You can recline it just slightly and sleep more and more vertically over time. And you will be more comfortable from the waste down. If you just want the benefits of a clear head and upright posture, and not a meditative/yoga experience, this should do the trick. But again, I would talk to a doctor. I hope this helps.

  7. I’ve been sleeping sitting upright at night for over a year after I developed edema in my lower legs. During the day I wear pressure socks prescribed by my doctor but at night, partly to help drain my lower legs of excess fluid, I sleep with my legs elevated on pillows. Because I would wake each morning feeling as though I had a congested head I tried to sleep upright and discovered that after doing this my head was totally cleared in the mornings. Perhaps the congestion was something to do with fluid draining into my upper body (of which my bladder effectively absorbed much) or pressure created with the drainage? Inevitably my body would slide down during the night into a more obtuse angle than 90deg.

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