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The Minimalists

Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus write about living a meaningful life with less stuff for 3 million readers. As featured on: ABC, CBS, NBC, BBC, TODAY Show, NPR, Forbes, The Atlantic, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and National Post. They live in Missoula, Montana.

How to Sleep Sitting Up

Drew Jacob, Photo by Genesa Smith

When you have less stuff your life changes. One of the nicest changes is the option to travel. Not every minimalist is a dedicated world traveler—we don’t all change countries every few months or walk to Brazil. But there’s a reason travel and minimalism get mentioned in the same breath. Whether you’re a jetsetter or just take a once a year vacation, it’s simpler with less stuff weighing you down (at home, in your luggage, or on the credit card bill).

But that doesn’t mean travel is always easy. I like to do whatever I can to lower the barriers. So when my sister Zangmo came to visit, I had some questions for her.

Zangmo is a Buddhist nun. She just finished a lengthy retreat in a Tibetan monastery in New York. We had a lot of catching up to do but after seeing her room at the monastery I particularly wanted to know about her bed.

She told me before entering retreat that Tibetan monks sleep sitting up. They even have a special “box” to sleep in at night. This lets them fall asleep facing their shrines and contributes to good meditation posture. To me, it also sounded like torture.

Though she makes it look good.

Better Living Through Sleepytime

Zangmo told a different story. She told me that she feels healthier sleeping upright. She never gets a sore back or stiff neck, she sleeps soundly and wakes up feeling rested and alert every morning (this depsite getting just 5 hours of sleep a night with the busy monastery schedule). I could see the effect it had on her: she was able to sleep anywhere and she was full of energy.

I thought this could be useful. I’m an adventurer, setting out on a spiritual pilgrimage across two continents. Anything that makes me more portable is good. Some of the benefits of upright sleeping include:

  • It’s good for your back
  • No more taking special pillows everywhere you go
  • You don’t need a sleeping bag—one blanket will keep you warm
  • It’s impossible to snore
  • You’re more aware of your surroundings and can wake up easily

I immediately saw the applications for my upcoming journey. I can carry less gear, and if I wake up to the sound of approaching footsteps I can be on my feet in a second. In the Colombian jungle that’s not a bad deal.

Of course most travelers aren’t so extreme. But 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.

I asked Zangmo to teach me how to do it right, then tried it out for myself.

How to Sleep Upright

What Zangmo taught me was a series of tips to make the transition easy. It took her about three months to make the adjustment, but learning from her mistakes I was able to make it in four weeks. By the first week I could sleep an hour or two at a time comfortably, and within two weeks I had slept five straight hours upright (moving to a bed for the rest of the night).

Prior to this my only experience with sleeping upright was in vehicles or at airports. It always led to horrible stiffness and pain. The reason is bad posture. If you can control your posture you can sleep upright with none of the pain, and that’s what most of these steps are aimed at.

1. The Right Surface

Set a board or other surface at about a 70 ° angle.

Ultimately you can sleep against anything, even a vertical surface with no troubles. To start off though you’ll want gravity helping you, and that means a slightly sloped surface behind you. I put a piece of particle board against my bedroom wall at a 70 ° angle.

To avoid scratching the wall you can throw a towel over the top.

2. Padding

Everybody likes pillows.

If you’re used to sleeping on a bed you’re going to want some kind of padding or you’ll go nuts. At the beginning, two pillows should work: one to sit on and one to cushion your back. After about two weeks I stopped using the pillows and now lean directly on the board, with no comfort issues.

3. Back Support

Lower back support is how you make upright sleeping comfortable.

The single most important part of upright sleeping is lower back support. If you support your lower back it will reinforce your torso’s natural curve, minimizing soreness. At the same time it will slope your body so that your head is leaning back onto the surface behind you. This makes it easier to fall asleep and avoid neck pain.

If you under-do your lower back support or sleep leaning forward, you’ll wake up with the same kind of soreness you get from hours in front of a computer. That’s called slumping and it’s not your friend.

Luckily it’s easily fixed. A rolled up towel or small pillow behind the lower back gets you the shape you need.

4. Neck Support

A seat cushion has a nice shape to support the neck without shoving the head forward.

Just like with padding, in time you won’t need neck support at all. But it makes the transition easier for beginners. Ideally you’ll have something that supports your neck but is thinner behind your head. Err on the thin side. If you use a pillow that pushes your head forward you’ll find yourself with significant neck pain—it’s better to relax the neck and head and let them fall naturally back against the board or wall.

If you have a small enough pillow you can support the neck without anything behind the head at all.

5. Something Extra

If you find that you slump over in your sleep, you have options.

In theory you now have basic good posture: your lower back is supported, you aren’t leaning forward, and your head falls back naturally. But at the start your body might not want to stay that way—you’ll wake up lolling to one side, or slouched over.

This will stop happening as your body gets used to the posture, but you can intervene if it’s frustrating. The easiest way is just to tie a scarf around your board and use it like a seatbelt for your head. This way you can’t lean forward or fall to the side.

Buddhists make such good models. Thanks Zangmo!

Putting it to Use

Most people assume that lying down is the “natural” way for humans to sleep, but after experiencing upright sleeping I’m not so sure. I think most people just decide that however they were raised is the natural way, and anything that looks really different must be uncomfortable. But just like switching from sleeping on your side to sleeping on your back, after a short period of adjustment it becomes normal.

When I sleep upright I have a very light, but amazingly refreshing sleep. I remember my dreams better, I wake up more easily if something is going on around me, and yet I don’t feel groggy or disrupted. I can jump right up without that usual feeling of disorientation that comes after sleep, which has led to not hitting the coffee so hard. Even though it’s a lighter sleep somehow it’s very satisfying.

I’m curious to see if any other minimalists take the challenge and try this out. Is it something you could use when traveling? Or maybe even at home? If you try it out, share your experience. How hard is the adjustment period, and do you end up with the same refreshing sleep that I did?

Drew Jacob is an adventurer and philosopher. He believes in the heroic life: the idea that the highest goal is to live gloriously, to distinguish yourself through your deeds, to leave a lasting and worthy impression on the world. To put it to the test he’s walking 8,000 miles from the US to Brazil. His goal: to meet the gods.