Sleeping on a mattress is the new sitting

There are people out there that eschew the comforts of mattresses, choosing instead to sleep directly on the floor with minimal padding. I am one of them. Different sleeping surfaces create different loads to your body’s tissues. Loads experienced from a soft squishy mattress will be entirely different from loads experienced, when forces applied are from a firm mattress, futon, camping pad, or ground tarp. One can apply the analogy of footwear to sleeping surfaces. Heel height, toe box size, upper robustness, and sole rigidity/thickness can unnaturally load your feet to varying degrees. Shoes put unnatural forces on  your feet and among many other things (alignment, walking/standing surfaces, amount and repetitiveness of movement, etc.), are implicated in poor foot mobility, flexibility, and strength and in many foot maladies including plantar fasciitis, bunions, metatarsalgia, Morton’s neuroma, etc. The tissues of your shod feet would respond one way to constantly running on flat, unvarying, hard asphalt/concrete and another way completely to walking barefoot or minimally shod over natural terrain with its rocks, roots, divots, sand, water, prickles, grass, moss, sticks, and inclines. Your bed is the unnatural equivalent of a flat, hard surface for your feet with its attending maladies. Sleeping on a minimally padded floor or the naturally padded earth is like walking barefoot in nature, with its ensuing health benefits.

My teacher, biomechanist Katy Bowman’s concept of casting comes into play with mattresses. She describes casts/casting as the habitat in which we dwell that prevents full use of our body. Obviously, shoes and flat walking surfaces are casts, because they keep us from using our intrinsic foot musculature and attaining full range of motion in the joints of our feet and ankles. A chair is a cast for anyone, who sits at a desk job for 9 hours a day, as it prevents your spine, hips, and knees from moving through their full ranges of motion and it keeps large chunks of your body inert and denervated. Bras are casts too. A mattress is one of your biggest, most insidious casts because of the amount of time that you spend there. Sleeping on a mattress is the new sitting. In the same way that there is no ideal sitting or standing position, there is no ideal sleeping position. Our bodies, over millions of years of evolution, adapted for full-body, natural, all day movement, not sitting, standing, or sleeping in casted positions. A modern bed is different from that for which our physiology is adapted. Hunting and gathering, which humans and human-like ancestors did for upwards of 3 million years, adapted our bodies to sleep on the ground. Sleeping on a mattress is a novel development. Daniel Lieberman, Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, in his brilliantly researched, illuminating book The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease considers that back pain could be a mismatch disease/injury because your soft and comfortable mattress may weaken your back. A mismatch disease/injury (back pain) occurs when human features were  adaptive in the environment in which they evolved (sleeping on the ground) but have become maladaptive in modern environments (use of a soft, cushy mattress).

The nature of a mattress, regardless of its firmness rating, is to conform to your body and its attending misalignments, a soft-cast of sorts meant to provide you with complete comfort. Always sleeping on something flat and squishy has altered the mobility and sensitivity of your parts. Your pillow may be an even worse orthotic than your mattress. It reinforces the head position that it creates, which is a head forward position that is implicated in shortening of muscles that run between the back of your skull and the first and second vertebrae in your neck. When these muscles are not able to return to their optimal resting lengths because they’ve been chronically tensioned by your pillow, joint degeneration and disc issues (in your neck!!) can occur.    A pillow prevents the very motion that you often do naturally when your neck feels tight or in yoga class, which is drop your ear toward your shoulder for a good neck stretch. If you were sleeping without a pillow, your neck would regularly go into this range of motion as your roll onto your side.

Sleeping directly on the earth with no or only natural padding is the gold standard – equivalent to barefoot walking in nature and still a luxury for some cultures around the world and a few hard-core westerners. The closest most people will come in their daily lives, however, will be sleeping on hard flat floors with minimal non-natural padding. All the same, the benefits over sleeping on a modern mattress with a pillow are significant. The forces of a minimally padded floor provide a variety of loads to your body’s tissue that don’t occur on soft-casting mattresses, because you move more without external resistance inherent in a body-conforming mattress. This results in greater ranges of motion for joints that are underused at best, or completely immobile on a mattress. The pressure of a hard surface provides a passive massage to your muscles each time you move, thereby causing mechanotransduction of your cells that facilitates circulation, electricity, and waste removal. In addition to facilitating your body’s natural geometry (positioning of your parts to each other and to the floor) and providing a nightly tissue regenerating massage, sleeping on the floor allows gravity to traction those parts of you, like your neck,  helping to restore your muscles to their optimal resting length. Just as sitting on the floor provides yin yoga style benefits of naturally stretching and tractioning muscles and connective tissues in your hips, sleeping on an unyielding surface is where natural neck stretching occurs. An additional benefit of floor sleeping is that it gives you at least one opportunity, and probably more, to get down onto the floor and up again.

If you go from sleeping on a bed one night to sleeping on the floor the next, without a transitional ramping down period, it’s going to be quite uncomfortable and may undermine your success. This could happen not because the floor is too hard, but because your body is “out of shape” for floor sleeping. You wouldn’t start a running program by doing a half-marathon. You would train by slowly increasing your miles, speed, and frequency, with plenty of rest days. Same with moving to the floor. If you exceed the boundaries of your tissues’ ability to adapt; and create loads that are more than what you body is used to, you may suffer. By transitioning slowly and systematically towards progressively more minimal sleeping surfaces, you will gradually load your tissues so that they can adapt to your new sleeping routine.

Katy Bowman writes about transitioning away from a mattress. I’ve distilled her suggestions, and added a few of my own. You’ve been sleeping on a mattress all of your life, so take time – weeks, months – to transition to the floor.

Try these steps:

  •  remove pillow topper from your current mattress
  • place mattress directly on ground (yes, removing box springs changes the forces of a mattress)
  • replace mattress with futon
  • replace futon with a thick rug/carpeting and some blankets
  • remove the blankets one at a time
  • replace carpeting with Tatami mat (Japanese sleeping mat)

You can follow a similar transition pattern for your pillow, going from thick and dense to thin and feathery to a folded towel, etc.

My story is a classic case of do as I say, not as I do. I transitioned, in one night, from a dense, squishy, memory-foam type mattress to two stacked blankets folded lengthwise on top of a hardwood floor with no pillow. The first 5 nights I experienced distressing this-is-why-i-haven’t-camped-in-10-years aches and discomforts. I moved around a lot to get comfortable and I was awakened every time I shifted in my sleep and reminded of how hard the floor felt. I suspected maybe I was making a big mistake – until I got up that first morning. Even though I had felt uncomfortable while I was on the floor, when I got up, there was NO stiffness to be found. I popped right out of “bed” and was completely mobile, buoyant, and fully alert. So I kept at it another five nights and noticed that I was beginning to feel more comfortable – less intentional position changing, less awakening when I shifted in my sleep, less sensitivity to the hardness. At about two weeks, I returned to the bed one night to see how that would feel. Immediately, what I call my “restless shoulder syndrome” returned. All night long, I was back to moving my arms over my head and back to my sides again and again to find comfort, but never finding it. Sleeping on my sides, I experienced that familiar ache in my shoulder joints. When I slept on my back, I discovered the mattress rounded my shoulders forward into an unnatural internal rotation, causing tingling and an unbearable urge to change position. When I became too uncomfortable, I would flop over onto my belly, but then my neck joined the chorus of discontent. Finally, in the early hours of dawn, I crawled back onto the floor and unbelievable relief and knew, immediately, viscerally, that I would never sleep on a mattress again. Over the next three months, there were occasional nights where my bony pelvis and tailbone would dig into the floor. At one point, I was beginning to experience a pressure sore on my tailbone. So that night, I reached for the faux sheep’s skin pad that used to extend my floor bed for Jolie the dog, when she wanted to co-sleep with me. Even though I had clearly experienced a decline in status from my partner and our other two dogs, who continued to sleep on the bed, Jolie is loyal and likes to snuggle, so I had placed that pad next to my floor bed for her. Anyway, on that night, while she was up with the higher-ranking members of our pack, I slid her pad under my hips and immediately transformed my bed. This addition of ¼ inch padding when squished, was enough to eliminate any further bony discomfort.  While I am perfectly delighted with the quality and comfort of my floor bed, I would prefer to sleep with my partner, thus I am making a more permanent floor bed for us out of stacked wool blankets that will be tufted together into a 2 inch thick sleeping pad, with inspiration from Pinterest and the DIY Internet people. I’ll post images when it is complete.

Here is a picture of where I currently sleep. It is comprised of a pendleton-like wool blanket and a standard comforter, both folded length-wise, and topped with Jolie the dog’s faux sheep skin pad.

My Floor Bed

My Floor Bed

And this is what happens when you invite us to sleep over at your house.

Kim's Dad's house

Kim’s Dad’s house

I’ve done some cursory searches of the scientific research literature – enough to tell you that there are few studies on sleep surfaces and almost nothing on ground/floor sleeping in the  anthropological, biomechanical, or medical literature. However, what I have read is interesting and I will share in a follow-up to this post.

Namaste, Michele

Sitting on the Floor…A Proposal

I start my yoga classes asking students to sit on the floor. I often ask “has anyone sat on the floor this week – aside from a yoga class?” I get a lot of “no’s.” Then I suggest opportunities for converting couch/chair sitting to floor sitting/squatting, such as when you are watching TV or reading or try performing activities at a low table like paying bills, computer time, eating meals, playing games, etc.

Sitting at a desk or on the couch/recliner/easy chair for long periods of time is associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and many cancers, which means it increases your risk of death from one of these diseases. One study showed a 61% greater risk for those who sit 7+ hours per day watching TV over those who sit less than 30 min. When you sit on furniture, especially cushy furniture that molds itself to your body, thus casting it into the shape of said furniture, you end up nearly motionless for long periods of time. You use few skeletal muscles when you lounge back on the couch. Idle muscles burn less fat (you get fat), respond less effectively to insulin production (you get diabetes), and promote less blood flow. Poor circulation in legs results in unsightly swollen ankles and puts you at risk for varicose veins and, even worse, blood clots. Muscles that sit around on easy chairs don’t contribute to cellular waste removal and conduct less energy to boot. Slouching back on a comfy sofa puts you in a tail tucked position that can, over time, result in pelvic floor disorders.  When you sit on your tailbone, as a slouchy couch promotes, you risk herniated spinal discs, pressure on your sciatic nerve – which can lead to the painful condition of sciatica – and weak butt muscles. Sitting with your hips and knees flexed for long periods of time, in any type of chair, decreases range of motion in your hamstrings and limits hip mobility, which is a major cause of falls in older persons. While it may seem comfortable while you are doing it, when you get up from your recliner after a Netflix binge, you are sure to experience a stiff spine and sore low back, shoulders, and neck.

So what happens if instead of slumping onto the couch, you choose instead to sit on the floor? When you sit on the floor, with your back unsupported by anything other than your own musculature, you in fact strengthen that supporting musculature otherwise known as the postural muscles of your trunk aka your core. A daily practice of sitting on the floor with your back unsupported (this means you don’t sit against a wall or couch) strengthens the stabilizer muscles that protect your spine, as well as trims your waist in a natural, functional way. I would put my money on floor sitting over abdominal crunches as the optimal way to strengthen my core ANY DAY. When your postural muscles are firing at their optimal lengths, you become strong enough to align or stack your vertebra, bringing back the natural, compression reducing, curves of your spine. When you sit on the floor, you are more likely to be on your sitting bones rather than on your tailbone, which is better for your pelvic floor musculature and your low back. Hanging out in seated postures on the floor increases your tolerance to greater ranges of motion in your joints, which results in a sensual experience of more flexibility. You feel less stiff, less tight.

When you sit on the floor supporting your own spine, you squirm. You don’t sit still. You move about. Frequently changing positions articulates your joints into many different angles, causing a seemingly infinite variety of loads to the tissues of your spine, pelvis, hips, groin, and legs. Different loads stimulate different muscles which, through the process of mechanotransduction, pushes blood into the smallest of blood vessels, innervates the tissues, and removes waste products.

When you sit on the floor, you do something you almost never do on furniture – you stretch. Just sitting on the floor in a cross-legged position provides passive tensile and compressive loads to your connective tissues, increasing strength and suppleness. But active stretching is likely to happen as well. Once you’ve shifted your position a dozen times to get comfortable, you’ll usually give in and just begin actively stretching your muscles! This would not happen if you were in a chair. Just sayin.

Claudio Gil Araujo is a Brazilian researcher who studies people’s’ ability to get on and off the floor as a marker of longevity. Basically, those study subjects that had to use one or both hands, an arm, their knees, a lower leg, a hand/s on their leg/ as a brace, or momentum to stand up from a floor-seated position, had a greater mortality rate as compared to those who could bring themselves from a floor seat to standing and back to a floor seat using only the strength of their bodies. While internal force production, or being able to mobilize and lift your own body weight, may not predict how long YOU will live, it is certainly a marker of functional health and reflects your mobilities and strengths at the deeper level of your cells and blood vessels.

Lose points for:

Lose points for:

In the image above, you would lose points in your overall sit/stand test score for using a hand, knee, forearm, hand on knee, or side of leg to brace or leverage getting on/off floor.

Here is a video of Araujo’s sit/stand test, with English subtitles.

Sitting on the floor. Being able to get down onto the floor and back up again with grace and ease, like all things worth achieving, takes practice. It also takes remembering to do it, forming a habit. The next time you find yourself sitting in a chair, nudge yourself to take your task onto the floor, even if only for a minute, to begin a daily, lifelong habit and practice of sitting on the floor.

So here is my proposal.

“Do you FootLove Yoga Blog Reader promise to sit on the floor, unsupported, everyday, several times a day, for as long as you live?”

“Do you?”

“Do you?”

Namaste, Michele

Bras, the Burkas of the Western World

My breasts are small. My nipples are large. These facts will be important later in this story. About 12 years ago, I did a brief, fun, memorable modeling stint for sporty women’s clothing catalog Title Nine – this fact is my disclosure.

Last night, I browsed through Title Nine’s latest catalog and got myself wrapped around the axle (again) about boobs. I was checking out bras, when I read about a bra called The Deuce, “light molding keeps the gals in shape and the headlights low.” Infuriated, I posted the following on Facebook ‘My nipples are not headlights and I will not keep them low.’ A discussion ensued. When I found myself commenting a treatise on breasts, I determined that I had harnessed enough incredulity for a blog post. Words and phrases in “quotes” are Title Nine’s.

Of course, I’ll start with nipples, given mine. We have a cultural aversion to nipples, treating them as if they are so dirty, profane, and obscene that not only should they be hidden from sight, but we should not speak their indecent name. I have felt pressured into hiding my large nipples much of my adult life. About a year ago, during an epiphany in the mirror with a clinging yellow shirt, I tossed out all of my undy bras and extracted the padded inserts (“removable modesty padding”) from my yoga tops. As a small breasted, large nippled yoga teacher, I admit I was uncomfortable standing in front of my class the first time without monoculturally-shaped modesty pads, knowing my immodest nipples were naughtily erect. But “the gals” and I prevailed. To hell with the nipple haters! No more burkas for my boobs.

Behind every nipple is a boob and in some cases, a large one, as my bustier friends have reminded me. Acknowledging that I am small breasted, I understand that larger breasts feel better with the support a bra gives. But consider that bras are a very modern invention. Prior to bras and other containment contraptions, women’s breasts were wild and free. Feral breasts (those that have never been held captive by bras) have a better opportunity to develop the capacity to hold their own weight without harmful impacts on other body parts. As a young, wild pair of breasts develop, ideally the natural movements of a the girl’s upper body would develop intrinsic and extrinsic breast-supporting fascial, ligamentous and muscular structures with appropriate strength and yield to allow her breasts to move naturally with ease. I say ideally, because most developing girls do not engage in anywhere near enough natural upper body movement to develop these tissues. Natural movements are those that would occur if we had to complete our essential activities of living without any modern convenience – performing the tasks that our bodies evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to do like walk, climb, hunt, drag, dig, gather, build shelter, and squat to birth, bathroom, cook, and rest. Our early ancestors used their upper bodies to dig, push, pull, hang, climb, throw spears, make tools, lift, and carry their few possessions, including their children. Imagine using your body to do/make everything you need to survive in this world! That’s what our bodies evolved to do. Our boobs evolved to support themselves.

Can you just stop wearing a bra altogether? A cups, yes! Larger than A cup, take heed. An analogy may help. Imagine there was a bra for your head that supported it on your neck from the time of your birth until you were 20 years old. For 20 years, you never had to use the supporting ligaments, musculature, and bones of your cervical spine, shoulders, chest, etc. to keep your head in place. At 20, the head bra is removed and suddenly you are required to hold your head up with tissues that have never carried the loads that a bobbing, weaving, shucking & jiving head produces. Trouble.

This is the state of our breasts. We put brathotics on as little girls as soon as our “teacakes” start to form, training our tissues to be nonfunctional. We band, strap, seam, wire, lift, separate, compress, and pad them throughout development, never allowing our suspensory ligaments to bear the weight of our breasts and the loads they produce while moving. Consequently, when we move in ways that cause them to swing or bounce, our weak, underused tissues can’t support us and it is uncomfortable or even painful, so we band, strap, seam, wire, separate, compress, and pad them even more.

If you are not strong enough to hang from a bar for several minutes, pull or push up your own body weight multiple times, or carry your heavy book bag with your arms for several miles, then your breasts and their support system are not strong enough to carry the loads produced. You would benefit your whole body health by building the breast system via large daily doses of varied load producing movements of your shoulder girdle to include pushing, pulling, reaching, lifting, hanging, carrying, climbing, crawling, pressing up, pulling up, dipping down, etc. You can achieve many of these movements and loads by simply walking with a healthy arm swing, gardening and yard work using basic hand tools, and playing on a good jungle gym set in your local park.

If, after improving the health of your breasts and their support system, you choose to move toward wild breasts, do so slowly and in stages. If you wear the strongest support like Title Nine’s “Booby Trap,” then ramp down to the next most supportive. Put your bra on later in the morning, and take it off earlier in the evening. Remove it when your loads are less – eating dinner, watching TV, and sleeping. It could take months or even years to transition out of your brathotics, so take your time and do the necessary work.

Back to Title Nine and other producers of fashion and health material for women: please stop referring to breasts as “the gals,” “the girls,” “teacakes,” “cabbages” and other ridiculous names. Stick to the B words – breasts, boobs, or bosom. And furthermore, healthy breasts with a functional breast support system (your own tissues) would never need to be “contained,” “controlled,” “conquered,” “molded,” “locked down,” or “kept in place.”

Title Nine

Namaste, Michele, who credits my teacher, biomechanist Katy Bowman, for my understanding of boob loads.

Barefoot is Better – Part 1

For millions of years, humans went barefoot. In the words of Daniel Lieberman, in The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease, wearing shoes is a rather recent fad. His book is all about the theory of mismatch diseases. Cardiovascular disease is one such mismatch. We evolved to move – a lot, mostly walking, many miles per month. But, in reality we are mostly sedentary. Thus, we have heart attacks – a mismatched outcome because we are not doing what we evolved to do, which is move. Having flat feet  (ped planus) is another mismatch. We evolved to be barefoot, but we wear shoes and this leads to diseased conditions in our feet because shoes act counter to what we evolved to be, which is barefoot.

Early shoes were basically no more than animal skins that provided surface protection. Today’s shoes, designed for varying degrees of style, comfort, and support, are radically different. For all the shoes you’ve loved, at the end of the day, they have interfered significantly with your foot’s natural functioning. Here’s how.

A typical athletic shoe has:

Feature: positive heel (heel is higher than toe)
Problematic because: a positive heel changes the geometry of your body, pushing more of your weight forward onto the weaker muscles, ligaments, and plantar fascia, whose job is to assist in gait and arch support and not bear the bulk of your weight. Additionally, your major joints have to make degenerative compensations to keep you vertical. Even the smallest degree of heel rise will have negative effects.

Feature: cushioned heel
Problematic because: a cushioned heel is comfortable. Thus you tend to land harder with our your strike when walking and even harder when running. You feel little sensation in your heels because of the cushioning. But each time your heel hits the ground, it sends a force 1-3 times your body weight, depending on whether you are walking or running, back up through your body. These forceful impacts can be damaging to your joints and lead to repetitive stress injuries in your feet, legs, hips & spine.

Feature: arch support
Problematic because: it relieves your foot’s ligaments and muscles from their critical job of holding up your arch. These muscles become weak and poorly innervated and eventually could cease holding up your arch at all.

Many work shoes have:

Feature: thick, rigid soles
Problematic because: they limit sensory perception so that your brain does not receive a clear or accurate representation of the ground and thus you react with gross, lumbering movements in your major joints instead of small, subtle shifts that keep you upright when the ground beneath you changes suddenly. Thick and rigid soles interfere with heel rise and toe off events during gait and thus do not allow articulation of the 33 joints of your foot. Movement is mainly limited to the ankle. Thus the intrinsic muscles of your feet are weak and poorly innervated and you experience this as a feeling of stiffness.

Many dress shoes have:

Feature: tight toe boxes
Problematic because: they can lead to bunions, bones spurs, hammertoes, and metatarsalgia. They result in weak, poorly innervated muscles between your toes. Since your toes are one of your main balance proprioceptors and house more sensory receptor than most other areas of your body, when you can’t move or even feel your toes, you are at greater risk of falling.

Many shoes have:

Feature: an upward curving sole
Problematic because: it relieves or muffles the toe off event during gait, which is integral to your foot’s multiple joint articulations and, coincidentally,  healthy hip extension.

Part II or this story will address barefootedness and how to get there slowly, oh so slowly, and safely. You’ve been shod for all these years, take your time unshodding yourself.

Namaste, Michele

What does Plantar Fasciitis, your down comforter, and your sleep position have in common?

Biomechanist Katy Bowman introduced me to the concept of casting. When you cast something, you immobilize it and its ingredients adapt to the shape of the cast. It happens in metals, clays, and body tissues. If you’ve ever broken a bone and worn a cast, you know that when you finally remove the cast, your tissues – bone, muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia, even skin – have adapted to the position they have been held or casted in. We cast our bodies in many ways and with many apparati.

Take feet, for example. Most human feet are casted into the shapes of their shoes for many hours a day and have been that way for almost as many years as their operators have been alive. If your shoes have a tight toe box, are thick and rigidly soled, and have positive heels (any amount of heel elevation relative to the toe) then you have been casting your feet into a tight, weak, motor and sensory deprived mess. Maybe its what brought you to this blog.

Another way we cast our feet, which is particularly problematic for plantar fasciitis (PF), is by keeping them in plantar flexion aka “pointer” flexion, pointing our toes like a ballerina, when we sleep. This position is known to aggravate PF. Try this. Get in bed, lie on your back, pull on your heavy winter covers and notice what position your feet are in. They will be pointing. Now, pull the covers off of your feet and notice how they come into a more neutral position, not quite dorsiflexed (aka flexing your foot or ankle – opposite of pointing), but less plantar flexed. Podiatrists will sometimes prescribe an orthotic called a night splint that you wear to keep your foot in dorsiflexion. But a less extreme and more comfortable alternative that you might try if night splints are not for you is simply donning soft, warm socks (sadly, also a cast, but less problematic than plantar flexing) and sleep with your feet out of the covers.

If you turn over onto your belly, regardless of whether your feet are covered, your feet will automatically be in plantar flexion – again, bad for PF. If you are a belly sleeper and have PF, try to cultivate the habit of sleeping on your back or side. Start out your sleep this way and move onto your back/side whenever you naturally wake up during the night.

Namaste, Michele