Pillow Therapy: How To Turn Sleep Into Yoga

Pillow Therapy: How To Turn Sleep Into Yoga

It’s sort of a standing joke – sometimes people cheer when it’s time for the last part of the yoga workout – Shavasana – that is, laying down to relax, breath and let the mind release.  There usually is no pillow and very little padding. This is a chance to feel the body in a natural setting, without the furniture which surrounds us in everyday life, pushing us this way and that way.

One way to integrate yoga into everyday life is to design one’s resting and sleeping environment around yogic principles. These minimalist principles are not what modern bedding designers use. Actually, modern bedding is over-designed. It is a case of taking technology too far.

The current modern trend is to make you feel no ‘pressure points’. In other words, numb your body so you are not aware of gravity or anything touching you. For decades the bedding industry has been claiming that is what creates the best sleep. First it was waterbeds and now it is memory foam.

But this reasoning is counter to yogic principles. In yoga, ‘Sensory Awareness” is everything. The sleep surface and gravity can be used as a tool for getting in touch with the body and creating a biofeedback system to put the body in a natural relaxation response.

How can you be aware of the sensations of breathing when you feel no pressure points? How can you feel the weight of the body sinking into the ground when you can’t feel the weight of the body OR the ground because you are on a surface that takes the pressure points away?

Rather, use gravity to FEEL the pressure points. Then breath INTO the pressure points so your body is completely relaxed like a cat sprawled out in the sun. Then the pressure points are evened out and Voila! You create a different relationship with the pressure points – instead of tensing around them you are releasing.

With a little thought, the bed and pillows can become powerful tools for deep relaxation and a more effective sleep experience.

Here are the Yogic Principles:

1. Spine Neutral

Keep the natural curve of the spine including the neck in the same position it would be in if you were standing upright. There should be no pressure on vertebral disks. This Rule Number One is broken in just about every pillow and bedding commercial where the pillow pushes the head up cutting off airflow through the throat.

2. Open Air Passages

Make sure the area around the nose is clear. During side sleeping, if a pillow sinks in it can hamper airflow through the nose. A firm buckwheat pillow works best.

3. Widen and Expand 

To optimize circulation and breathing, use pillows and/or a body pillow between your knees and arms to help your lungs and diaphragm stay open and maximize oxygen capacity.

4. Change Positions

It’s a good idea to rotate your body to different positions when you feel like it so circulation is better distributed.

5. Breath Through Your…

Nose. Breathing through your nose (as opposed to mouth breathing)  increases circulation, blood oxygen and carbon dioxide levels. It also slows your breathing rate and improves overall lung capacity. This sometimes has to be a conscious CHOICE (80% of Americans breath through their mouth) that turns into a HABIT. You may need a yoga teacher or bodywork therapist to help train you to do this.

By using these principals, your body initiates the ‘Relaxation Response’ – a physical state of deep rest – that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress. This is the opposite of the fight or flight response. The Relaxation Response is your personal ability to release chemicals and brain signals that make your muscles and organs slow down and increases blood flow to the brain.

As your pulse and heart rate slow down, muscle tension decreases, the brain gets quiet and the chatter stops. This approach to the sleep environment promotes the Relaxation Response. Another important way to promote the Relaxation Response in your bedroom is to create a sanctuary from electromagnetic fields that keep our bodies in a state of tension. For more on this subject, stay tuned for an upcoming blog post.

How to Achieve these Principles when Side Sleeping

Many people sleep on their sides and believe the only way to be comfortable is for the bed to sink in to accommodate their hips and shoulders. However sleeping on a soft surface hampers breathing.

Side sleeping in general is considered a great position in yoga and by chiropractors alike. I have always felt that it might be the ultimate position because it feels to me like the cranial sacral fluid would move freely and be kind of pumped by the breathing action. The important thing here is to lay on a firm surface that doesn’t sink in.

This is a different approach to establishing spine neutral, as illustrated by the photos. A head pillow should prop the head so it is not elevated or dropping in relation to the neck. This opens the air passage in the throat. Pillows can be used to open the lungs and hips. Most people who try this feel an immediate wave of relaxation.

How to Achieve these Principles when Back Sleeping

The same concepts apply to back sleeping. When sleeping on a firm surface you are mimicking the yoga practice environment. You can use a small neck pillow which widens and expands the neck without pushing the head up and out of alignment. You can also use a pillow under the knees which eases the stress on the lower back. This is a constructive way to use the kapok head pillow – not for the head at all. In this case there is no need for a head pillow, but putting it under the knees maintains the curve of the lower back – or the ‘spine neutral’ effect.

The sleep environment is an often overlooked place to find an extra way to add yoga into your daily life. Using these principles encourages the Relaxation Response which puts your body in a true yogic state. From here it is easy to flow into a yoga asana like child pose or fetal pose for even more calming of the body/mind before sleep. Then return to your back or side knowing your body is opened and aligned, your breathing is deep, and your mind quiet. You drift into deep unhampered sleep. Sweet dreams!

Sleeping On A Firm Or Hard Surface Benefits And Techniques

Sleeping On A Firm Or Hard Surface Benefits And Techniques

Sleeping On A Firm Or Hard Surface: Benefits and Techniques

For Sweet Dreams on a Hard Surface Part One Click Here.

I believe the reason mattresses have become ubiquitus is mainly due to these reasons:

1–The perceived comfort is an adaptive response. The body becomes ‘front-loaded’ due to facters such as chair sitting and mattresses. When the body stretches and lengthens on a firm surface, those tight muscles and ligaments are stretched and noticed, causing discomfort.

2–The psychosomatic aspect of a mattress: It looks thick and plush, therefore it MUST be comfortable.

3–Since mattresses have been around for so long, no-one even questions their usefulness. Therefore no studies are performed.

4–The propaganda of a century of advertising.

Sleeping on a Firm or Hard Surface Benefits and Techniques.

Relaxation response and deeper sleeping created by synergy of all these factors.

1–Alignment (natural kickback mechanism of breathing action against sleep surface which re-aligns the body as you sleep)

2–Increased Breathing Capacity and Oxygenation of Blood

3–Increased circulation.

Three techniques for adapting the Firm Sleeping Lifestyle:

1–Bodywork Remediation

2–Body awareness and ability to relax all muscles evenly against the surface so no pressure points are felt.

3–Propping and positioning the body in ways unique to this kind of surface.

After a lifetime of mattress use you are probably going to feel uncomfortable when you first start sleeping on a firm or hard surface. And what is meant by a ‘hard’ surface?

I have personally tested various beds, futons, and natural surfaces over several decades and have come to the conclusion that what mattress manufacturers call ‘firm’ or ‘hard’ does not even come close to the traditional Japanese futon. What describes this quality best is a thick quilt on a floor or board. That bit of padding (about one to two inches of compressed padding) won’t let the hips sink in to mis-align the spine, yet it buffers the body somewhat. From my own experimenting and interviewing people, I have come to the conclusion that this amount of firmness is what works for most Americans who are changing their lifestyle and sleeping habits.

You will need to experiment for yourself to see what works. You can start with napping and later try sleeping this way. It may take more than one night to get used to it. You can gradually go to a harder surface and compare the results. The interesting thing I have found upon informally interviewing people who have tried sleeping on firm surfaces is that they complain about it being hard and less comfortable, and yet they sleep very well and feel refreshed upon awakening.

You can sleep on a ‘platform bed’ or the floor. A ‘platform bed” is a simple raised surface where your mat goes, but does not have a true mattress. The platform bed is best for those who don’t want to get down to the floor level. It’s disadvantage is it can’t be put away during the day.

The Japanese use a tatami mat under the futon. This provides ventilation underneath which helps regulate body temperature as well as keep the futon from becoming damp with the body’s persperation. It also keeps the futon, blanets, and pillows off the floor which might be dirty and drafty. This is a great invention, but is expensive and doesn’t always fit in with a person’s interior design. A simple tatami mat imitation can be easily handmade from lumber. All that is needed is a slatted surface raised a few inches off the floor. Or the platform bed can serve as a tatami mat if it has a slatted surface.

People with health issues such as arthritis, scoliosis, rheumatism, or weak capillaries will need to use common sense and not go to as hard a surface as healthier individuals.

What you are aiming for is a ‘spine-neutral’ position. Neutral spine is the natural position of the spine when all 3 curves of the spine — cervical (neck), thoracic (middle) and lumbar (lower) — are present and in good alignment.

The type of comfort one feels on a hard surface is more of an acquired taste. It is similar to the difference between Wonder Bread and old fashioned sourdough bread. One is soft and empty, one is solid and wholesome. You will feel your hips and shoulders rubbing against the surface and you won’t sink in as before. Unfamiliarity is not comfortable. It is comforting in the way it helps you breathe more fully, the way it grounds your body, the way it reassures you that there is something solid somewhere in life that you can always count on. At first you may feel like it’s impossible to relax, because it contradicts all your ideas about relaxation. You are feeling your life energy, the place your body comes up against the earth. You will know where you are out of alignment. Give it some time. Common sense and a spirit of adventure go a long way.

Sleeping in this way resembles restorative yoga, and props can be used in much the same way. The goal is to position the body so it is relaxed and comfortable. There are several supports, bolsters, and pillows which can be propped in any number of ways depending on individual needs. For instance, for lower back pain, place a small support under the lower back (when lying on your back). A rolled up sock will work, but a flax seed eye pillow is the ultimate size and shapes just the right amount. Or alternatively, place a bolster behind the knees. When side sleeping, hug a large pillow and put a pillow between your knees–or use a body pillow. Also, make sure your head pillow is tall enough. It should be about 5 inches (for most people) when compressed–your head should not be pushed up or down but paralell with the bed.


Unlock the Benefits of Firm-Surface Sleep

Discover the overlooked advantages of sleeping on a firm surface. Ditch the plush mattress myths and tap into age-old wisdom for better sleep quality. With our guide, learn the science, techniques, and transformative benefits of the firm sleeping lifestyle. Ready to revolutionize your sleep? Dive in and experience the difference.