Learning Not to Steal (Asteya)
At some point, every serious yoga practitioner should become familiar with yoga philosophy. The core of the practice, the spiritual teachings of yoga, takes us deeper than the physical poses can go. The foundation of yogic philosophy is the Yamas and Niyamas, the ethical principles and universal inner practices that guide us not just in the physical aspect of yoga but in living our lives with integrity.
Who me, stealing?
When I’m teaching the five Yamas (the ethcial principles), I often feel a little stumped with conveying the practical application of Asteya (pronounced “uh-stay-uh”), known as “non-stealing”. Most of us think we have that one nailed. Of course, I know not to steal! But the subtle and less obvious applications of Asteya show up in all areas of our life, on and off the mat.
Stealing, according to Webster’s dictionary, means “to take or appropriate without permission, dishonestly, especially in a secret or surreptitious manner”. We steal when we don’t have the means to purchase, the capability to produce (as in ideas or copywritten materials), or when we have the belief that we could not otherwise gain or possess what is desired by honest means. We steal when we feel a lack or a void and are desperate to fill it, be it in our stomach, our closet, or our pride. Stealing encompasses everything from the simple swiping of a loaf of bread to distracting attention away from the one who merited it.
The subtle aspects of Asteya
Although few of us, fortunately, have stolen a loaf of bread, we may have, consciously or unconsciously, participated in stealing many times in the past. It’s common to come home from work and end up with pens from the office store room in our drawers, or even from the local gift shop that you automatically put in your purse after signing the credit slip.
Some of us in college photocopied material that we did not have permission to, or included information from a source without quoting it while writing an essay. Although these actions do indeed constitute stealing, these are relatively easy behaviors to change, and should be changed to truly embody Asteya.
The roots of fear
However, the more subtle and less obvious aspects of Non-Stealing are challenging, and often we have to learn how to see these patterns in order to change them. Usually, stealing in any form emerges from a deep-seated fear. Whether it’s a fear of not finding our next meal or of being inadequate, the roots of fear need to be found and pulled out before the garden of Asteya can flourish.
One of the many outward expressions of fear is jealousy. When we’re jealous, we feel resentful of others who have what we want. Jealousy is a more intense expression of Envy, wishing we could possess the qualities, experiences, or items that another has. Jealousy and envy often lead us to take what isn’t freely ours. A student may see a teacher complimenting another student and want that for himself, so he may try to show off in front of the teacher or consume his time after class with discussion to gain attention.
While this may seem innocuous, these are subtle forms of stealing. Jealousy steals energy from others, and saps our own. If we are jealous of someone who can do an advanced pose, it affects our behavior around them. We may project our resentment on them and make them feel uncomfortable, “stealing” their ability to feel at ease in class.
If we dismiss an acknowledgement of their competence, we are taking what is rightfully theirs and may have been honesty achieved through much hard work and practice. We waste our own energy through obsessing over what another has, when we could be focusing on what we are capable of.
Another repercussion of an intense craving for what another has can be injury – to ourselves. More challenging poses require the proper foundations and preparatory work to accomplish: if we try to snatch them for ourselves by forcing them to happen, we can cause damage to our own bodies (and further damage to our egos).
In our day to day lives, non-stealing means that we do not take from others, even from the planet itself, without permission and without giving back. When we pass on the teachings of our predecessors, we should honor and acknowledge them. If we use an idea of a co-worker’s, we need to give them credit. When we take of the fruits of the earth at every meal, a moment of recognition and gratitude is in order, followed by finding ways to give back to our planet. We can replenish what we have taken by planting trees, offering bread crumbs to the birds, composting, recycling in whatever way we can, and taking no more than we need.
Greed, a form of stealing, is rampant in the world today and we are seeing the results as our forests dwindle, the poor starve, the skies pollute, and our waters clog with waste and toxins. We may not even be aware of being greedy because its seeds are subtly planted everyday through the media, enticing us to constantly desire and take more and more.
From the air we breathe to the cars we drive, most of us consume more than we nurture the earth. It is essential that Asteya be a part of our daily practice, for if we do not give back and learn to be content with what we have, we slowly and steadily deplete the planet, for which all beings suffer.
Part of the practice involves becoming more conscious of the products we buy – do the companies we support take from the earth responsibly, replenishing what they use? Are they paying fair wages, or stealing a fair living from their workers and their families? Do they treat animals with kindness and respect, or are they robbing beings of the right to a decent life? When we take the time to uncover the practices of corporations we support with our currency, and support only those that return to the planet and the community as much as they take, we practice Asteya.
Only what we need
Again, fear is often at the root of our tendencies, however seemingly benign, to steal through over-consumption. We may worry about how we appear without a certain wardrobe or a particular hair product. Fears of inadequacy may fuel our need to have bigger, better, “cooler” things. A concern that we won’t fit in or appear out of touch can motivate us to furnish our homes with items we don’t need in order to impress visitors.
Swami Satchidananda says that buying more than we need is actually stealing things “by not letting others use them.” He states, for example, that if one person has fifty garments in his closet and his neighbor has none, the first person is “stealing the second’s usage”. Buying more than we need also raises prices for the poor who truly need these goods and can’t afford them. To practice Asteya fully, we must consider how our actions – especially our purchases – affect others.
Having comfortable and attractive clothing and furnishings is reasonable; at what point do we go beyond reasonable? In the moment when we feel compelled to buy something, we can ask ourselves a few simple questions. Is this something I really need? Am I buying it to appease, soothe, or repress an emotion I’m experiencing? Will I truly use and appreciate this item? When we get to the roots of our fears and work to build our security inside ourselves – by accepting who we are and appreciating the abundance of what we have – we can overcome the tendency to compensate through over-consumption.
Recognize what you already have
The Yoga Sutra of Pantanjali teaches us that “to one established in Asteya, all wealth comes.” (chapter two, verse 37) This is not intended to be translated literally – our bank accounts won’t suddenly double when we no longer engage in any form of stealing. If we “learn not to steal” in any form, we will realize that all we need comes to us naturally, and most of us have enough.
It doesn’t mean that we don’t have to work for our living, but that we trust the process and know we are taken care of. Most of us have abundance in our lives and don’t recognize it – perhaps in material possessions, but additionally in health, love, clean air and water, a safe community to live in, fresh food to eat. As we appreciate and receive what we already have, life feels naturally more abundant.
Generosity – the heart of Asteya
As we explore Asteya deeper, we realise that it’s not enough to not-steal. Generosity is the heart of Asteya. We give because of the joy of giving, not just in order to receive what we want.
When we feel full-filled with what we have and who we are, we find that we have much to offer others. Whether we choose to pass on material things we no longer need or to offer our time, energy, and love, becoming generous and thoughtful beings is at the core of the practice of non-stealing.
Fully embodied in Asteya, non-stealing, we become content and peaceful. A peaceful mind is our greatest wealth. Most of us struggle, fight, and strive to achieve all our lives because we have no peace of mind. We worry that what we have and who we are isn’t enough.
By recognizing our own good and unique qualities and gifts, we don’t need to strive to be like others or to steal their limelight to feel sufficient. Instead of feeling jealous, we can celebrate the achievements of others and feel joyful. No item or accomplishment can bring us lasting peace and contentment like Asteya. That’s something worth striving for.
Copyright © 2006 by Constance L. Habash
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