Many yogis, including Swami Rama, talk about the four primitive urges, also known as the four fountains. Every animal experiences these urges, and humans aren’t exempt! These are the basic needs that every creature wants to have fulfilled. Almost any problem you may experience can be related back to one of the four primitive urges at the root level.
Who doesn’t need food? The desire for food naturally occurs in the body when we become hungry, but sometimes the urge to eat can begin in the mind, when we use food for more than just physical nourishment. Food can be comforting, calming, soothing; it can help us procrastinate, it can get us excited, or even make us sick. The next time you reach for a candy bar, consider whether you’re truly hungry or whether you’re trying to fill some other emotional need. As a yogi, one’s food intake shouldn’t be more or less than what the body needs for fuel, so both overeating and starving yourself should be, well, off the table. Also, your diet shouldn’t pollute your body or agitate or your nervous system (hello, coffee!). We’re all guilty of indulging now and then, but in general, following the guidelines for a sattvic diet will help to keep the primitive urge for food in check.
Although the need for sex is a physical need, the desire for sex typically begins in the mind and travels to the body. For example, you might be in a perfectly normal mood but then happen to see a sexy scene in a movie, which stimulates the mind and which in turn arouses the body. The body was just fine; it was the mind that got you worked up. As yogis, we try to keep a balanced state of mind in relation to sex, following the yamas and niyamas to use sexuality appropriately and enjoy it in a healthy way.
Every living creature needs sleep, but we can definitely get too much of a good thing! Laziness is said to be the greatest of the sins that undermine progress, not just in yoga, but in whatever you do in life. Laziness is covered under the yamas and niyamas, as well as in the nine obstacles to mental clarity, the Gunas (as tamas), and is mentioned often in the Bhagavad Gita as an obstacle to performing your duty or dharma, which of course is a major part of yogic philosophy, so laziness is clearly a major issue! The Bhagavad Gita also says that yoga is not for those who sleep too much or sleep too little – in yoga, we seek to find a balance, not depriving ourselves of the sleep we need to do our work and function in the world, but not giving in to laziness and lethargy either.
The instinct for self-preservation is where our “fight or flight” response comes from. In essence, this urge is rooted in fear: at the base level, fear of death, which is included among the kleshas as an obstacle to achieving enlightenment. On a figurative level, self-preservation includes fear of losing something we have, and fear that we won’t get what we want or need. Among the many things we try to preserve are our physical body, attractiveness, social standing – anything that contributes to our mental concept of ourselves and how we want others to perceive us. Trying to preserve these things is a natural instinct, but in yoga we work to remove our attachment to the things of the physical world, because only the inner true Self stays unchanging.
We need the four primitive urges to survive, but as we seek spiritually, we must recognize how they influence us and keep the urges working in appropriate ways, not limiting us or holding us back, but only pushing us forward to achieve our potential.