The Suppression of Natural Urges

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:

1.      flatulence
2.      defecation
3.      urination
4.      belching
5.      sneezing
6.      thirst
7.      hunger
8.      sleep
9.      cough
10.  breathing rapidly upon exertion
11.  yawning
12.  tears
13.  vomiting
14.  ejaculation

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.

8 thoughts on “The Suppression of Natural Urges

  1. drclaudiawelch says:

    I have always found this passage and sentiment interesting as well, Ivy.

    One “urge” that has particularly caught my attention over the last few decades of treating or observing–is sleep.

    While many of us have come to good terms with our diets, for example (when hungry, eat and when thirsty, drink) we don’t seem to respect the sleep missive so well. Why is it that we don’t feel threatened by hunger or thirst, but we often fear tiredness? We often go immediately to “What’s wrong with me?” When we are tired, we should rest. It’s that simple. And the consistent practice of ignoring our body’s message, “I’m tired,” is–I believe–quite at the root of many endocrine and other disorders we face today. I write about this in my book (Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life) in more detail, but thought to address it here, as it is so relevant to this urges business.

    Much love,

    • ivyingram says:

      Indeed – I know the urge to sleep has been all too easy for me to ignore, especially when I get caught up in something and I am feeling productive. It takes a long time to re-train one’s response to the first signs of sleepiness. I remember reading some statistic about the incredibly high percentage of Americans who are estimated to be sleep deprived, and a long list of bodily functions that are adversely affected by insufficient sleep. I am loving your book for the light you shed on so many issues affected by hormonal imbalance – I’m so glad you have written it! I know it will bring deep healing to so many.
      Love and light,

  2. pamalama says:

    i just read a review of a book, “Teach Us to Sit Still: A Sceptic’s Search for Health and Healing” by the British novelist, Tim Parks. Suppresion is at the nexus of Parks’ search. Ultimately, he finds release through Vipassana Meditation, or so the review says ( i haven’t yet read the book),. Ivy, i appreciate what you say in your responses to Virginia and Donca regarding the goal here being opening ourselves to a more thorough self/body/healthful awareness all the while acknowledging that such an awareness is informed by the complexity of cultural, environmental, psychological,and other sensitivities, interrelationships and interactions. This whole discussion is provocative and expansive, made all the more so by your thoughtfully crafted essaying. love, psi

    • ivyingram says:

      Sounds like an interesting book – I’ll have to look for it when I get back. Yes, so many complexities and interrelationships and interactions. It seems things get so complex when trying to answer the question “How can I be healthful?” I like the answers that lead us to simplicity – I’m reminded of Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” in which his advice on what to eat is summed up thus: “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly vegetables.” Simplicity is good, not least of all because we can remember it!

  3. donca vianu says:

    Dear Ivy,

    As you know, I read with much interest your comments.
    Well, I am very interested in Ayurveda and have no doubts that it can help in many conditions and that the theory is full of wisdom.
    Yet this statement that all illnesses come from suppressed urges puts me off.

    What about devastating illnesses as Myastenia gravis, multiple sclerosis, neuromuscular disorders, epilepsy, lupus erythematosus, pernicious anemia, aplastic anemia, dermatomyositis, Huntington disease, Addison disease, type 1 diabetes, choreoretinal diseases and disorders of vitreous body and globe, nephrotic syndrome, polycystic kidney disease, amyloidoses, haemolitic uremic syndrome, glomerulonephritis, osteoarthritis, ulcerative colitis, porphyria, schizofrenia, malignant compulsive obsessive syndrome, dementia, a.s.o. (I can continue for many pages) – all caused by suppressed urges???

    And what about the urge to murder someone? As we often suppress tears, so do we often suppress anger. What is in this case a crime against wisdom, to murder or not to murder?

    And what about the Chinese tradition (thousand of years of wisdom) which teaches men to control ejaculation, as this enhances vitality and longevity? (beside making sex more enjoyable for women).

    Putting aside these critical thoughts, I am looking forward to be in Vaydiagrama and have a Pancha Karma treatment myself. I have all faith that it will make me more healthy.

    In your previous mail you mentioned that Emily’s mother is in Vaydiagrama. Please give her my regards and my best wishes.

    Looking forward to your next experiences and insights,



    • ivyingram says:

      Hello dear Donca,

      Thank you so much for reading, as always, with such care and interest.

      I think the provocative nature of this statement in the ancient text is what has kept me thinking about it so much. I too question how such complex and varied conditions could all come from suppressed urges. To your list of devastating illnesses, I would add those illnesses brought on by chemical pollutants, radiation, or bacterial infection. The path back to a suppressed bodily urge is tricky with those too. My personal interpretation is that the author is pointing to the nature of prana or qi, our subtle life energy, and the absolute necessity to keep it moving if we want to maintain health. Where there is illness, there is a lack of prana, and likely has been for some time. It is a small leap backwards to say if prana is lacking, something happened in the organism to block its natural flow.

      As with all texts from a different time and culture, there’s a risk of reading too literally or being thrown off by a particular interpretation. By sidestepping the controversial assertion that “all” diseases are caused by suppression of urges, maybe we can get to a useful kernel of truth in this message. What I’m currently taking away is the idea that our body speaks to us, and that this communication is helpful if we hear it and respond to it, if we cultivate a relationship with it and thereby increase our awareness of its needs.

      Another challenge with the statement in the text is that it can be interpreted as blaming the patient for causing their disease. I suppose that’s often the risk when trying to pull apart cause-and-effect relationships pertaining to illness. There is a thin line between assigning blame and empowering us all by identifying behaviors that may make us healthier in the future. I certainly am aiming for the latter.

      As for the inclusion of ejaculation in this list, that is a bit confusing to me, too. Elsewhere in the text it advises that excessive orgasm (for men or women) reduces ojas, a term that can be correlated with our modern understanding of immunity, so in that section it advises controlling ejaculation. I noticed that our translator has amended the original text with a clause in parentheses: “Urges of flatus, feces, urine [etc.]… should not be suppressed (by force as a habit).” He apparently is interpreting that it’s the habitual practice of suppression that causes problems. I return to the idea of prana; I personally believe that with a refined, experiential understanding of the subtle movements of one’s own energy, one could delay the satisfaction of an urge like ejaculation in such a way that it does not deny the flow of prana and thus does not result in blockage or stagnation.

      One final note – in taking this quotation out of context, I have done a disservice to its authors who go 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.” (A.H. Chapter 4, sloka 24) So the intended message is not that ALL urges should be satisfied, only the ones listed. I’m going to go back and edit my original post to that effect right now.

      Thank you so much for your note Donca. I will continue pondering these issues and see what evolves in my understanding. These texts are nothing if not thought-provoking.

      I too am confident you will have a restorative, healing experience here at Vaidyagrama. I only wish I could stay here a bit longer and see you when you arrive.

      With much love,

  4. virginia ellenberg says:

    hmmmm, as you know i have had some untoward results from various supressions of nature urges so i am learning to pay attention and let’er rip if not in too compromising a place or time.i have even learned what foods account for what urges and can plan ahead ’cause i live without job or too many commitments. But i learned as a teacher to supress most urges until time out of the classroom…and that training is hard to break. i am now wondering about tantrums in kids…….should they be helped to express the frustration, and can breathing thro’ it be counted as “expression”?

    • ivyingram says:

      Yes, being able to anticipate urges by knowing which foods account for them, for example, I think is the ultimate goal. Increasing awareness of how the heck this body works hopefully will allow us to have a lot more fun living inside of it! Indeed, training is hard to break. At least you are in good (or at least widespread) company. So, tantrums in kids… this is “a whole nother” issue. This part of the ancient text is only referring to these 14 particular bodily urges, so I’m gonna have to plead uncle on that one and go do some more reading!

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