Conscious Sleep

Conscious Sleep is something practiced in Zen monasteries – monks can, if they choose, remain upright sitting while sleeping.

I trained to teach the Alexander Technique in the 1980s at the Institute for the Alexander Technique in New York City, under the directorship of Thomas Lemens. Our training hours were from 6:30 am until 10:30 am – two staggered three-hour groups. This enabled us to work eight-hour day jobs, something essential for most New Yorkers as life there is quite expensive.

I took a job doing renovation work on upscale apartments and condominiums. My prior work experience had been as an actor, and I decided to leave that behind. Doing jobs like plastering and painting ceilings is extremely demanding on use. One cannot simply space out as one can at most desk jobs – pain from misuse comes very rapidly when you are standing on a ladder working overhead.

Eventually, I got good at directing myself while working, but sleeping became a challenge. I would begin the night on my back, on an old, compacted futon on the floor, my head supported by just the right thickness of pillow (sometimes with a book or magazine under it!), but as soon as I fell asleep my childhood habits of curling up would assert, and I’d awaken in discomfort and direct myself to open out again. I passed one period during which I rarely slept for more than an hour without awakening when I drew my arms and legs in, pulling my head painfully back and down – hard to believe that was how I’d slept my whole life! This kind of retraction is a response to stress, in my case I had been a severely asthmatic child. Or perhaps I was keeping myself warm by curling up when placed in a cold, New Hampshire crib?

At one point, after stripping paint from woodwork for several days in a row, I developed painful tendinitis in both wrists. I realized that I had a habit of curling up my arms during sleep, flexing both wrists while bringing both hands in towards my shoulders! The lovely tendinitis awakened me every time I retracted thus, so I learned to stop it. It certainly contributed to my tendinitis!

Gradually, I was able to remain open while sleeping – some aspect of consciousness persists during sleep, I realized. In noisy New York, I learned to sleep through the wail of sirens but would awaken to the whimpering of my infant son in the next room.

I no longer have the experience of waking up stiff from having slept in a bad condition, although lengthening more to attain uprightness is still an opportunity for conscious direction!

I have had some time sleeping alone recently, and I realize that I no longer move while asleep – the position in which I begin sleeping is the one I’m in when I awaken hours later. I sleep on my back and on my sides, with little variation except for arm position. I don’t curl up when sleeping on my side – I keep my torso long and only slightly fold my legs. I notice that my diaphragm remains high and I am not abdominal breathing when I awaken. No more tossing, turning and pulling my blankets out from under the mattress.


Many years later, I had a diagnosis of Erdheim Chester disease, a rare cancer-like disease affecting multiple organ systems. I suffered from extreme fatigue and joint pain, particularly in my shoulders. I could no longer swim and putting on or taking off a shirt was very painful and difficult. I began getting out of bed at around 5 AM, taking a blanket and seed pillow and moving to sleep on the floor for a few hours. While resting on my back with my hands on my lower abdomen, I noticed that my hands were not lively. Folding my arms to place my hands on my trunk, as I had learned for rest position, I was retracting my arms and closing my hands. I moved my arms to the floor alongside of my trunk, placing my hands below my hip joints. I needed to put awareness in my hands and activate proprioception to allow my hands to open and become mobile. After only minutes of directing my arms to lengthen my shoulder joints and neck released. Then, surprisingly, I felt my hip joints open. Only after releasing my arms to free my neck and let my spine lengthen did my legs enliven and lengthen. Practicing directing my hands and arms thus for many hours over a couple of weeks, I found the pain in my shoulders gone. I could again swim and putting on a shirt was no longer painful exercise.

Was my shoulder pain caused by ECD or by increasing the time I was retracted in sleep?

The opening of my sleep retraction was not complete. There is always more work to be done.