The third yama, asteya, is translated as “non-stealing,” or more fully, “To one established in non-stealing, all wealth comes.” There are a lot of different interpretations of this one. The obvious is not to knock off a liquor store or rob a bank – but these are the most literal ways to think about asteya. Non-stealing also has to do with taking things that might not be ours to take – others’ ideas or the community’s resources, for example. Even beyond this, it can be about how we choose to share with others what we’ve gained, and even the subjects we choose to devote our thoughts to throughout the day.
Sri Swami Satchidananda, translator of the Yoga Sutras, makes the point that when we accept things without giving back in some way, even this is a form of stealing. Stockpiling resources, he says, rather than sharing them around with others who may need them at least as much might also be considered stealing.
Linda Sparrowe, editor of Yoga International, adds the nuance that preventing others from benefiting from whatever we’re experiencing – externally and internally – is also out of alignment with asteya. “When I experience truth or joy or abundance,” she says, “it is my duty, my dharma to share that. There is no separation in yoga between you and me; between the macrocosm (the outer world) and the microcosm (my inner world). By not sharing, I rob the people closest to me, as well as my community and the world at large, the opportunity to experience and benefit from those gifts.”
When you broaden the definition of stealing in these ways, you realize that it’s a pretty common thing to do, and most of us do it in some way. The root of this tendency to steal probably has to do with our “craving” – the attempt to fill internal needs with external things – which is such a central part of what yoga tries to address. As Rolf Sovik, PsyD, spiritual director of the Himalayan Institute, says, “Craving—imbalanced desire—is the great challenge in life. Its symptoms are the willingness to harm, to lie, to steal, to over-indulge, and to mistakenly possess.” When we can practice a little non-attachment, our craving – of whatever it is we’re craving – will be quelled.
And Sparrowe adds that many times, it’s not just about things. “We attempt to fill the void by stealing other people’s attention, energy, or strength so we feel better about ourselves.” Even using the presence of others to quench our own cravings fits the bill: “Clinging to someone because we are too afraid of being alone or because we doubt our own abilities—that’s stealing as well.”
If we really want to take non-stealing a step further, we can apply it even more internally. One might argue that when our minds flit about from worry to worry, rather than giving pure attention to the task at hand, this is also stealing – in effect, we’re stealing ourselves away from ourselves. Building up our capacity to focus our attention is a major part of yoga (and has its own limb, dharana, which we’ll get to in the coming weeks). “One way of practicing asteya,” says Sparrowe, “is to refuse to allow our mind to ‘steal’ us away from what we’re doing and rob us of our present-moment focus. Allowing ourselves to be distracted is a form of stealing because we deny ourselves the true joy of experiencing what is happening right now.”
One of the keys to practicing asteya might be to realize that there’s almost never a real need to steal whatever it is we may be stealing – because we already have the internal tools to fill the void ourselves, though it may not always feel like it. Stealing from others just clutters the process, Sparrowe says. “By assuming that we are empty and devoid of qualities—and others have what we want or need—this is suffering caused by ‘stealing.’ We have everything we need inside of us to face what we have to face—strength, resilience, humor, love; and when we learn how to tap into that and trust it, we suffer less. What I think yoga teaches us is we don’t always have to look outside ourselves to find the strength, resilience, or validation. Asteya allows us to stay present, listen deeply, and act from integrity and from the belief that we have everything we need.”
This may be a hard concept to wrap your brain around – it is for me – but just understanding the idea of it might be enough to start. Beginning to think about what it means to take – from other people, from our environments, and from our own bodies and brains – starts to wake you up a bit. And after that happens, maybe it will be easier to find a better balance.
What does asteya, or stealing, mean for you? What are some other ways to define it?
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga last year. She is the Associate Editor at TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com and a Contributor at Forbes.com. Alice will be exploring yoga’s different styles, history, and philosophy, and sharing what she learns here on the YogaGlo blog. You can follow Alice on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.