Get this – according to the ancient Ayurveda texts, there is one cause of ALL disease: the suppression of natural urges. You know, urges like burping, sneezing, defecating, that kind of thing. Just think – all diseases, if you could trace them back, start here. Now that’s food for thought.
Fourteen distinct urges are identified that we are encouraged to satisfy when they arise:
10. breathing rapidly upon exertion
An entire chapter in the Ashtanga Hrdayam is dedicated to this topic, a chapter instructively titled “Prevention of Disease.” The implication is clear – if we stop denying these urges, the genuine messages of need from our bodies, we can be free of disease. It’s that simple. I find this amazingly commonsensical, and kind of revolutionary.
Most of us suppress these urges (or initiate their associated actions prematurely, another kind of denial) on a regular basis. We wait until a convenient break to eat during our workday regardless of hunger, or we stifle a sneeze so as not to be rude. We learn our culture’s prohibitions around certain urges at a young age, like those around flatulence, belching, or tears. By the time we’re adults, we often don’t register that we’re suppressing urges; we may not even notice an urge at all, so trained are we to schedule the activities they are calling for. I know a few people who won’t feel the need to defecate unless they are near a familiar bathroom (even if several days pass). Hunger is another common victim here. Many of us never feel hunger, since we eat according to the clock, and meal time may come well before or after the urge to eat arises.
I’ve been contemplating this concept during the still days of pancha karma. It is such a rich piece of medical advice, recorded several millennia ago and still relevant to our modern life. Our body-mind functions effectively only when there is a natural unimpeded flow of inputs and outputs – what we need must come in (air, food, water, love), and what we don’t need must go out (carbon dioxide, waste material, tension, emotional expression). We understand this on the gross level, but the importance of the timeliness of this flow generally escapes our attention. Retaining some of those wastes when the body is ready to expel them, even for a short time, creates an imbalance in the carefully calibrated system that is our body. Blockages or backed up passageways create stagnation, which has an effect on both the physical level and, perhaps more importantly, on the level of our life force energy, or prana. When there is a kink in the smooth flow of prana, the adjacent tissue is eventually compromised, providing a foothold for illness.
At this point, I hasten to add that after the text identifies the urges not to suppress, the author goes on to list the urges one SHOULD suppress: “He who is desirous of happiness … should control the urges of greed, envy, hatred, jealousy, love (desire) etc. and gain control over his sense organs.” So the message is not that ALL urges should be satisfied, only the ones listed above that pertain to bodily needs.
During our classes here at Vaidyagrama, we spent a full day discussing the effects of suppressing these natural urges. Dr. Ramdas emphasized that in particular, many illnesses of the female reproductive system may start with suppressing the urge to urinate – painful menstruation, urinary tract infection, even cystic ovaries can have their roots in suppressing urination, he explained. Imagine that.
The texts lay out in exquisite detail the resulting diseases or discomforts that arise from denying each urge. Some are obvious results which we have all experienced, while others are not so evident. For example, the result of suppressing the urge to pass gas is abdominal pain, upward movement in the gastrointestinal tract leading to retention of feces and/or urine, exhaustion, loss of vision, and ultimately heart disease. Whoa.
Here’s a personal favorite: the suppression of tears. I love it that this one is spelled out by the ancients. Even those of us who cry relatively frequently often TRY to suppress them first and only let them flow when we fail to hold them back. The result of suppressing tears is a runny nose; pain/disease of the eyes, head and heart; stiffness of the neck; loss of taste; dizziness; and a sensation of upward movement in the abdomen that can feel like choking or breathlessness.
Another thing I love about this concept is how easy it is to apply as preventive medicine. No need to exercise or change your eating habits (although those may be important things to do as well!). Just choose one of the urges listed above and watch for it over the next few days. Notice when the urge arises (or doesn’t), and how you tend to respond to it (or its absence). Let me know what you discover. I’d love to hear about it.
There’s another larger message for us to take away here. Suppressing one of these bodily urges is considered a “crime against wisdom,” a vital concept in Ayurveda called prajnaparadha. “Crimes against wisdom” refers to the things we do that we KNOW are unhealthy or lead us away from our own truth, actions that deny our inner wisdom or knowing – like accepting the invitation for dinner when you know you really need to rest, or eating the fiery enchilada when you know it will give you indigestion. While the plaintive plea of a bodily urge can be lost in the cacophony of a busy day, it is comparatively loud next to the quieter voices of inner wisdom that speak of quieter needs. If we want to hear these voices, we have to encourage them. We can start by recognizing our bodily urges as wisdom, and doing what they ask.