The Yamas are the first of Patanjali’s 8-limbs of yoga. They are the yogis ethical guide to life. Here we delve further into the fifth Yama, Asteya, or non-stealing to explore how it weaves into daily life and how, with awareness, we can cultivate a full and abundant life.
Patanjali was a profound observer, thinker, and psycho-scientist. He had a knack for going beyond the obvious and getting to the root of a concept. Like all other Yamas, the practice of Asteya requires us to understand not only the obvious but also the subtle aspects of its meaning and application.
What is Asteya?
Asteya literally means non-stealing. But at the deepest level, Asteya means abandoning the very intent or desire to possess or steal anything—whether it is material, a talent, a relationship, a gift, achievement, success, time, or natural resources—that primarily does not belong to you, through force or deceit or exploitation, by deeds or words or thoughts. The urge to steal in this way arises out of greed, a sense of lack, powerlessness, and comparing ourselves to others. When these underlying seeds of Asteya are addressed and eliminated, the virtue of Asteya becomes established in us.
Asteya and a Sense of Belonging
In words of the great master Lao Tzu, “Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.” This is the true spirit of Asteya.
Have you ever seen a grandparent or parent become envious of things that their grandchildren or children possess? In most cases, they actually feel happiness that their children are thriving.
Similarly, when we truly start rejoicing in not only what we have but also what others have, when we start putting attention into feeling happy instead of feeling envious, jealous, greedy, or desirous of things that others have, then who those things actually belong to hardly matters to us. The whole world starts to belong to us. This sense of contentment and togetherness forms the basis of the practice of Asteya.
Asteya and Self-Reliance
According to Yogi Amrit Desai, when you realize that everything that you need lies within you—and that the source of all intelligence, power, strength, love, happiness, and peace lies within you—when there is nothing outside to look for, Asteya naturally starts to manifest. This sense of self-reliance, inner richness, and resourcefulness is another important element of the practice of Asteya.
Asteya and the Spirit of Abundance
The third important element of Asteya is the law of plentitude, or a sense of abundance. As Donna Farhi says, “When we feel connected to the vastness of life and are confident of life’s abundance, we are naturally generous and able to practice the third Yama, non-stealing (Asteya).”
Asteya and Minimalism
In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “Asteya (non-stealing) does not mean merely not to steal. To keep or take anything which one does not need is also stealing. We are not always aware of our real needs, and most of us improperly multiply our wants and thus, unconsciously, make thieves of ourselves. One who follows the observance of non-stealing will bring about a progressive reduction of his own wants. Much of the distressing poverty in this world has risen out of breaches of the principle of non-stealing.”
I think this is the subtlest but the greatest practice of Asteya. The Minimalism Movement of today is probably based on this principle of Asteya, and it compels us to question our tendency of hoarding our wardrobes, storage places, and homes. This tendency arises out of nothing but excessive greed, envy, and insecurity. And as Mahatma Gandhi said, this is definitely making us thieves—we steal the real freedom and joy of life from ourselves.
Finding the Balance
The practice of Asteya, like all other Yamas of the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, requires perfect balance that comes out of correct understanding.
This concept is very beautifully explained by Deborah Adele, E-RYT 500: “It (Asteya) is restraining from making ourselves smaller or bigger than we are, or from trying to be something we are not or hiding from what we are. It is often hard to know where to draw the line in just where too much lies. Yoga addresses this dilemma beautifully: Gather all the resources you need to support your particular service in the world. No more; no less. In other words, we are asked to walk a fine line between stealing from others and stealing from ourselves. If we take more than we need, in any area of our lives, we are stealing from others. If we deny ourselves the resources we need to reach our full potential, we are stealing from ourselves.”
Why Should We Practice Asteya?
According to Maharishi Patanjali, “Asteya pratishtayam sarvara ratnu pasthanam” (II, Sutra 37) “When non-stealing is established, all the jewels (wealth) approach the person.”
Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar elaborates: “All the wealth comes to you effortlessly. A little intention to steal can keep you poor. Most of the time poverty is self-made. A person wants to be sneaky and grab and get as much as he can. That is where his luck goes down the drain. But the virtue of non-stealing brings all the wealth effortlessly.”
“Being without desire, he effortlessly attracts what is precious, materially and figuratively, including the gem of all jewels, virtues” said the late B. K. S. Iyengar, yoga master and scholar.
The Practice of Asteya in Daily Life
When I started reflecting about Asteya, I found hundreds of obvious and subtle ways that we can practice Asteya in our day to day life. But these five ways of stealing will surprise you completely.
- When you wish that you could have the same thing/ability/skill as somebody else…
Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says that “(Even) sitting and wishing ‘I wish I had that looks’; ‘I wish I had that voice’; ‘I wish I had that car’; ‘I wish I had that power’; ‘I wish I had that money’, you have stolen.”
- When you say to others that they are so blessed that they have this thing/ability/skill/grace…
On the surface level, we might feel that comments like these show that we are appreciating them for what they have. But at a deeper level, we may be stealing their moment to shine, because we can’t be wholeheartedly and unconditionally happy for them. The feeling of lack—I don’t have this, and I want it—becomes larger than being happy for them. Instead of feeling happy, we might even secretly feel envious and jealous for what they have and what we don’t.We may also be causing self-harm by not allowing our own unique gifts to flourish. We steal our own light when we cannot acknowledge and honor the unique gifts that we bring in the world.
Instead, if we are grateful and appreciate our own unique gifts, the expression in the same instance could be something like, “I truly admire blessings that the Divine has showered upon you, and I feel so blessed and happy that I have a friend with such wonderful gifts. Shine on!” Here, we are looking at others blessings as our own blessings too! There is no lack, there is no dearth, and it is an enthusiastic and heartfelt expression of appreciation!
These empowering and affirming words from Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar give us great direction too: “Simply recognize all the virtues that you appreciate in others and realize that they are present in you in seed form. You only have to nurture them.”
- When you worry about the future or brood over the past…
So often, we literally steal joy from ourselves by worrying excessively about the future or brooding over the past. Worrying about the future causes us to plan things to perfection, but when something does not go exactly as planned, or when we become obsessed with perfection, we tend to forget about savoring the big picture, and miss the joy of chaos and the present moment.Many times, we allow people, situations, things, environments, and experiences to impact our ability to be happy. We carry the good or bad memories of the past caused by these external stimuli, and get caught up in our own regret and guilt. When we do this, we steal the opportunity of dwelling in the pure bliss of our being, of living in this very moment.
When we think about Asteya in regards to our happiness, we are reminded not to steal the pure joy of the now of our lives.
- When you hold onto prejudices or judgments…
It’s human nature to be judgmental, but it’s not always useful to us. The tendency to be judgmental creates division between people. An interesting scientific study proves that being non-judgmental can lead to lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress-related illnesses. When you are not judgmental, you become open and free to give and receive love on so many different levels. When you believe in the inherent beauty of every individual, when you’re not labeling anybody (including yourself) and not creating positives and negatives, you feel calm and connected. When we hold prejudices and judgments about our own selves, we limit and steal our infinite possibilities. We become our own thieves. When we judge others and hold prejudices against them, we may steal away their confidence and freedom.Yogis out there, let us shed away any prejudices or judgments against anybody, be a friend to anyone and everyone, and let us bring happiness and joy to everybody around us.
- When you remain in your cocoon or comfort zone…
“The best things in life are often waiting for you at the exit ramp of your comfort zone.” —Karen Salmansohn, from her popular radio show, Be Happy, Dammit.When we remain in our comfort zones, we steal away our own possibilities to enjoy the best things in life. We restrict our own potential, progress, and growth into the world of undiscovered possibilities. While explaining the top 10 rules of success, Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says, “Sometimes we should get out of our comfort zones, then the abilities in us dawn.”
When we chase our infinite potential, we are also able to uplift people around us and help make this world a better place. Let’s not steal those opportunities away from people and the world! Practice Asteya, dream big, get out of your comfort zone, and let those dreams manifest!
Most of us are not thieves in the typical sense, but upon closer examination, you’ll discover the subtle but significant ways that you steal from yourself and others.
The practice of Asteya asks us to look at all those subtle ways of stealing the non-material richness and gifts of our lives. It enables us to enjoy our innate beauty, the vastness of life, and the perfectly imperfect reality of the moment. The result is a fuller, deeper and more honest relationship with life that helps us to live to our full potential.
Enjoy your practice of Asteya, and let all of your gems, virtues, and skills effortlessly dawn in you.