Along yoga’s eight limb path—the lifestyle tenets put forth by Patanjali—is the principle of non-stealing. Called asteya in Sanskrit, non-stealing is not just about keeping our hands off other people’s physical possessions. It’s also about time, resources, and respect for things that cannot be owned.
Ideally, everyone would share resources and no one would have a sense of ownership over anything. We’d all help each other and contribute equally for the good of all. Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world. We also, understandably, want recognition for the things we create.
When thinking about the yogic ideal of non-stealing, we might consider that, in truth, nothing is truly ours. We are guests on this planet, and we need to respect our host. In other words, living in harmony with those around us is a better goal to strive for than winning a competition. When we compete for control, power, money, or a bigger slice of the pie, our spirits suffer.
Of course, it’s not wrong to want things, and there are certainly things we need. But taking from others to get more for ourselves puts us at odds with creation. It also violates asteya.
Asteya prohibits theft, but it is a much broader concept of theft than the usual idea of stealing. Of course, it’s wrong to break into your neighbor’s home and take his possessions. But we can steal in much subtler and insidious ways. In fact, we can even steal from ourselves.
All theft makes us spiritually weaker.
How to practice asteya
One way to practice asteya is to notice your intentions when you interact with others. Are your interactions about relationship or all about you? Are you supportive and encouraging, or do you bring others down with negativity and anger? (Yes, you can steal emotions and joy.)
As yogis, we try to develop tools to protect ourselves from those who try to steal our joy, but that’s another issue. To practice asteya means we are in touch with how our actions affect others, and we work at lifting each other up.
It’s natural to slip into behaviors that bring you or others down. The trick—asteya—is to move away from such behaviors as quickly as possible. When you catch yourself behaving in a way that’s a “downer,” stop. Acknowledging the insecurity or fear that drives your behavior can make this easier.
To live by the principle of asteya is to be responsible for our own lives. And we need to live with integrity and stand strong even when life isn’t fair. Many hard-working, honest people live without much in the way of material possessions or attention. On the other end of the spectrum are those who make just as much effort, but end up with much more than they can ever consume.
Envy of those who have more and a sense of entitlement to more than we need are subtle forms of stealing. True happiness comes from living a life in which we do not envy others or hoard excess. That is asteya.