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Understanding Asteya in Literal & Subtle Form

Understanding Asteya in Literal & Subtle Form

We continue our in-depth exploration of the ethical principles of Yoga with a look at the third yama, asteya or “non-stealing.” As with our previous principles, we’ll look at asteya in both the direct and more subtle ways it can be understood, as well as concrete ways we can apply it in on the mat and in our personal lives.

As with many of our yamas and niyamas, the importance of not taking what isn’t ours is so clear it can be easy to jump to the following yamas without much reflection, but in this case it can be especially beneficial to be aware of the subtler ways the Yogis understood asteya. Beyond the more direct level of not stealing, Yoga emphasizes there are many seemingly innocuous acts and even thoughts that ultimately can have the same consequence as literal theft, so we’ll start our exploration with a look at these.

The first subtle form of asteya is refraining from taking things we haven’t earned. If, for example, our boss offers us a raise we don’t feel we truly deserve, in the Yogic view for us to accept it would effectively be taking from our company and our fellow employees. In the spirit of asteya, rather than merely accepting the raise, we would be better off either politely declining or (perhaps more realistically) making a firm commitment to ourselves to raise our efforts to be worthy of our boss’s perception. Likewise, if we find money in the street, the Yogic view is we should do our best to find the owner and, if unable, give it to someone who needs it rather than simply taking it as our “good fortune….”

Interestingly, this understanding of asteya applies not only to the physical but also the “energetic” – that is, in the Yogic view, we also want to be mindful of accepting praise or credit we haven’t earned. When we accept compliments for something that wasn’t truly our doing, we are basically stealing from the person responsible – even if it’s something as innocuous as accepting praise for a skill or piece of information we have that is ultimately a gift from our teachers or just a blessing we were fortunate enough to be born with. For example, if someone praises us for our knowledge and we accept it with the thought: “Why yes, I am very clever, aren’t I?” we would effectively be stealing from all the people who taught us and supported us and contributed to that “cleverness.” Perhaps more important, by focusing on our own sense of “talent,” we are falling out of touch with the blessings of our lives that made them possible, effectively replacing “gratitude” with “pride”– an exchange in which the Yogis realized we are ultimately stealing from ourselves. Of course, this isn’t to preclude accepting appreciation or acknowledging our own efforts, it simply means not losing sight of all the factors that contribute to our achievements.

Non-Stealing, Appreciation & Connection

Beyond these literal and metaphorical understandings, the Yogic view of asteya actually goes deeper still. The Yogis remind us we are also basically stealing when we take things we do not need – even if we can afford that third cupcake or have worked hard for our vacation home, in the Yogic view we are still ultimately taking from others when we take things we don’t truly require. In fact, even if that cupcake is going in the trash if we don’t buy it or the vacation home will sit vacant, the fact is the Yogis realized both our money and energy often can be better invested, whether in supporting others in securing true needs or simply enjoying what we already possess.

At this point, it’s important to note this isn’t to preclude honoring and pursuing the things that give us pleasure – in the Yogic view, we are all here to enjoy life, and our unique loves and passions are an integral part of that. The key rather is pursuing them in a way that’s in balance with our connection with the world around us. In turn, a related part of this understanding of asteya includes appreciating the limited resources of our world – that is, when we focus on our own pleasures to the preclusion of thinking about how our choices impact the people or planet around us, that too becomes a form of stealing. True asteya involves not only thinking of others but the greater scheme of life.

To add one last layer, just like with undeserved praise, the Yogis remind us when we take things we don’t need we are not only stealing from others and our environment but in fact ourselves. Simply put, they realized when we invest energy and focus on things we don’t truly need, we are in effect distracting ourselves from all the blessings and joys we already have, “stealing” the happiness of the moment by focusing on the future. In this as in all senses of asteya, by honoring it, we serve ourselves every bit as much as those around us.

Beyond Words: Exploring the Philosophical Roots of Asteya

Beyond these direct and subtle forms, once again the Yogis realized the primary issue behind asteya ultimately is not just the actions we may or may not engage in but even more importantly the assumptions behind them. As with ahimsa and satya, when we contemplate stealing – again, either in the literal or more figurative sense –we are actually making at least one if not several logical errors, errors which ultimately cause us pain whether we act on them or not.

For example, when we contemplate taking what isn’t ours, we are assuming we have a right others don’t have, that our needs are more important than those from whom we are taking. When we take pay or praise we haven’t earned, we actually short-change ourselves from applying ourselves to the degree we could have – a process that again ultimately “steals” from us. And, once more, when we convince ourselves it’s “okay” to pursue things we don’t need, we make the error of thinking we’re not whole and complete as we are, again potentially depriving ourselves of joy and appreciation in the present moment.

Once we understand this aspect of asteya, we realize it goes far deeper than “Don’t take what’s not yours,” encouraging us to more mindfully examine not only what we take – both physically and energetically – but also the assumptions and spirit behind them. Again, it’s important to note this is by no means an injunction against enjoying or striving, nor encouragement to deny our needs or suppress them in the name of the needs of others, rather it is an encouragement to check in before we act and assure we are both acting and thinking in a way that honors our true needs, our true capacities, and our true connection with the people and world around us….

Asteya On the Mat & In Our Lives

To finish once again with a brief look at some of the practical applications of asteya, we can once more begin with our most common Yogic practice, our time in asana. Interestingly, asteya can readily be seen on two “opposite ends” of our physical practice: if we are overly self-critical, we effectively steal from ourselves the peace and enjoyment of our practice, focusing so much on what we are doing “wrong” or “poorly” that we don’t enjoy our capacities or our experience. On the other end of the spectrum, if we become “proud” or conceited – again, even if there is an element of truth given the work we have done – we once more steal from ourselves the appreciation of the blessings that have made our accomplishments possible. Basically, the more we are thinking either “I’m so bad,” or “I’m so good,” the less we are thinking “I’m so lucky….”

Beyond the mat, of course asteya applies profoundly to all the relationships in our lives, especially in the more subtle forms discussed above. Whether with loved ones, at work, or in our community, asteya can serve as a reminder to frequently ask ourselves: “Am I being mindful of what I am taking in this situation – both literally and metaphorically? Am I paying equal attention to what I am contributing and to the needs those around me? Am I making assumptions about what I ‘need’ or ‘deserve’ that are perhaps keeping me from seeing either what I could do or could simply enjoy right now…?” In this way, understanding the deeper layers of asteya can radically shift not only our behavior but in fact our outlook on both life and the people with whom we share it.