3 Ways to Practice Asteya (Non-Stealing) on Your Mat

August 4, 2014    BY Michelle Marlahan

The yamas, or ethical restraints, comprise the first of the eight limbs of yoga and support harmonious relationships with ourselves and others. Asteya is the yama translated as “non-stealing.”

Most of us are not thieves in the typical sense, but upon closer look, you might find small but significant ways that you steal from yourself in your yoga practice.

If we consider that the desire to steal comes from feeling like we don’t have enough or we’re missing something, the definition of asteya could include elements of respect and abundance. Cultivate deepened connections to these qualities by exploring your practice through the lens of asteya.

1. Examine your relationship to time.

Think back to the last time you attended class. On the drive or ride there, were you relaxed or unrushed? Did you leave time to leisurely prepare for class?

For many of us, heading to class looks more like leaving 10 minutes later than we wanted, zipping through traffic, maybe a choice word when things don’t go smoothly, only to arrive late.

You may be checking many things off your list and not deeply experiencing any of them.

If this describes you on a regular basis—if rushing and tardiness have become a habit—you may be checking many things off your list and not deeply experiencing any of them.

The underlying feeling may be one of lack and scarcity. If I’m operating on the premise that there isn’t enough time, I’m more likely to cram a day or practice as full as possible. Yet full attention is what makes something rich, not necessarily the activity itself.

It could be said that we are addicted to doing. More is better. The lesson of asteya is that there is already enough.   

Time for asteya:

  • Arrive to class with ample time to set up and settle in.
  • Consider declining that “one more vinyasa” invitation—what’s it like to slow down and do less?
  • Even if yours is a fast-paced flow class, can you move swiftly without the feeling of hurrying or trying to steal off to the next pose?

2. Appreciate rather than conceal.

The Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi teaches that beauty lies in imperfection and impermanence. Sadly, many of us take on enormous pressure to meet standards of appearance and status that are unnatural and unattainable, instead of appreciating what makes us unique. This is in direct conflict with asteya.

When we try to conceal or camouflage parts of ourselves or morph into what we think someone wants, we deny the reality and beauty of who we are. We end up with compartmentalized versions of ourselves, and our worth becomes contingent on how we look or how much we weigh.

This kind of masking robs us of our own vulnerability and humanness, and it robs others of knowing who we really are.

Asteya reminds us to claim and even appreciate the ways we are different and to meet one another with openness and respect.

Asteya reminds us to claim and even appreciate the ways we are different and to meet one another with openness and respect. This is the ground for connected relationships with ourselves and others.

 On the mat, watch for:

  • Comparison to other students—imagine everyone in the room as a different piece of fruit. You wouldn’t wonder why a banana doesn’t look more like a grape. Because every body is put together differently and has a unique history, we look different in the poses. When we get caught up in what someone else looks like, we miss out on what’s happening for us.
  • Trying to do the pose “right”—use tips on alignment to find the place where your body feels enlivened and free, rather than trying to fit into a universal mold. Our bodies are built uniquely, all the way down to our bones. There’s no one right way to do a pose that works for everyone. There’s a saying in yoga, "Make the pose fit your body, not your body fit the pose." How is doing the pose “right” masking your own vulnerability?

 3. Be where you are.  

The Buddha said, “Be where you are . . . otherwise you will miss most of your life.”

When you’re not where you are, you steal from yourself the experience of being alive in that moment. If you do that most of the time, you will miss your life.

It’s completely natural for the mind to wander, for memories and plans and conversations to pass through your head. That’s what the brain does.

But the unwatched mind is like a runaway train—it’s very hard to slow down and see clearly.

That’s why yoga (including meditation) is so profound and important. It’s training yourself to be aware of the sensations, thoughts, and emotions present in any given situation. Rather than running off in the story of those thoughts or feelings, see them as ever changing and watch their fluctuations like clouds in the sky.

 Asteya reminds you that you never get a day back, but you always have the moment at hand.

On the mat, in the moment:

  • To minimize stimulation and distraction during class, keep your eyes closed when possible or look at neutral objects in the room (a wall, your mat, or the floor) rather than at other people.
  • In each pose and transition, bring your attention back to the feelings in your body and the experience of breath, over and over. Like training a puppy, be kind, gentle, and consistent.
  • When the mind does wander off, relish the feeling of coming back. Get a felt sense of what it’s like to come back into your body and the joy of knowing the moment just as it is.

The practice of asteya asks us to look at where we hoard or have greed and reminds us of the nonmaterial richness of our lives. It engages us with the perfectly imperfect reality of the moment. Practicing asteya on the mat will help you explore the small ways you withhold care and respect from yourself. The result is a deeper and more honest relationship with life that no one can take away from you.

Michelle Marlahan
Michelle Marlahan is a yoga teacher and the owner of It's All Yoga in Sacramento, California. Her practice is inspired by poetry, nature, slowing down, and a fascination for the human body. As a teacher, she encourages curiosity and interest in the process rather than reaching a final destination.

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