Asteya (non-stealing), the third of the five yamas (restraints) described in the Yoga Sutra, counsels us not to take (or misuse) what doesn’t belong to us and not to crave or be envious of what others have. When we take something from someone else—possessions, partners, ideas, time, or energy—we are trying to fill an inner void, the sages tell us. They liken this to pouring milk into a bowl with holes in it. No matter how much milk we pour in, the bowl stays empty. We are like that bowl. The holes in us, caused by some deep loss or unfulfilled desire, can leave us lacking, feeling insecure, jealous, or resentful of others. And we attempt to plug these holes by taking things to get attention, or clinging to other people because we are afraid to be alone. My experience of this when I was younger almost led me to commit a crime.
When we take something from someone else—possessions, partners, ideas, time, or energy—we are trying to fill an inner void, the sages tell us.
Years ago, when I was in college, the guy I was dating told me over coffee and bagels that he needed some expensive medical books for his courses but couldn’t afford to buy them. He casually mentioned, maybe I could help him sneak them out of the reference library at another school.
He was asking me to steal. Suddenly I could see the black-robed nuns of my childhood holding the Ten Commandments they had drummed into us kids—the eighth one being Thou Shalt Not Steal—shaking their heads and mouthing no. I couldn’t steal. On the other hand, I couldn’t say no—what if he got angry and broke up with me and then I’d be alone? I wrestled with my conscience. Every day he would ask; every day I would answer no and walk away. Undaunted, he kept chipping away at my resolve until his persuasive arguments wore me down.
I began to rationalize to myself: perhaps his cultural values are different than mine; maybe, for him, it’s okay. At the time, I needed his approval more than I cared about the admonishment of the nuns, so I told him yes. We worked out a plan. Once we got there, he would go into the reference section in the musty basement of the library, find the books he needed, and slip them to me, one by one, through the upper window. Under the cover of night, like the thieves we were, we began our subterfuge.
Resolved to do this no matter how much my inner voice screamed in protest, I stood alone in the crisp autumn night, looking up at the stars, my mind and heart in deep inner turmoil. What am I doing? I thought. Then I heard him whisper my name, and I turned to crouch by the library window. As he handed me the first heavy medical tome, my conscience won out. Terrified but determined, I shook my head no and refused to take the book. He was furious, and refused to speak to me on the two-hour drive back home.
For instance, when you feel lonely, instead of immediately reaching for the Häagen-Dazs, do a 10-minute relaxation in shavasana first. Then observe how you feel. The more you learn that your higher Self can fulfill your needs on a subtler level, the less likely you’ll feel the need to take or demand anything from anyone else.
Sometime later, I found out that he had been unfaithful to me. Not only had he wanted me to sacrifice my principles for his gain, he had also robbed me of my dignity. I felt humiliated. Crushed, I finally ended the relationship. Too alone and scared and vulnerable to be by myself, however, I quickly got involved with someone else—someone who had a more positive influence on me. When I was with him, I felt good about myself, so naturally I wanted to be with him all the time. Unfortunately, he had already made plans to join a spiritual community, and when he left, I felt empty and adrift. Suddenly I understood that I had been stealing his energy and his identity in order to make myself feel whole. I now had a choice: I could rush into another relationship and do the same, or accept that I needed to learn who I was—by myself. I decided to take a yoga class.
In class, our teacher wove the yamas and the niyamas among the asanas. When she touched on asteya, I immediately remembered the “book incident.” It made me think long and hard and deep about why I had almost succumbed to doing something illegal. The deeper meaning of asteya, the teacher reminded us, is beyond not stealing from others. It speaks to addressing the emptiness we feel inside.
According to the sages, when we don’t have confidence in ourselves, we look for it in the approval and attention of others. By doing this, they say, we steal from our potential to be the best we can be. When we doubt ourselves, when we say, “I can’t,” we don’t even try and, in the process, never learn to say, “I can.” Practicing asteya helps us to concentrate our distracted minds and have the focus we need to attain our goals.
As we further incorporate the attitude of asteya in our lives, we begin to see that everything we need is within us. Rather than looking outward to get what we need, we can choose to stop and listen to our inner Self, to understand how to meet those needs in a deeper way. For instance, when you feel lonely, instead of immediately reaching for the Häagen-Dazs, do a 10-minute relaxation in shavasana first. Then observe how you feel. The more you learn that your higher Self can fulfill your needs on a subtler level, the less likely you’ll feel the need to take or demand anything from anyone else.
Although material wealth may unexpectedly appear when we need it, true spiritual wealth comes when we’re complete and whole within ourselves. We don’t have to steal objects, or people’s time and energy, to get attention and to feel good about ourselves.
“The power of non-stealing,” as Alice Christensen writes in Yoga of the Heart, “is based in remembering that everything comes from God. Everything we have is a divine gift, and we can observe it all with wonder, delight, and astonishment. There is no fear of losing anything. In the same way, if everything is at your disposal, you don’t feel the need to steal from anyone. A great feeling of peacefulness surrounds a person who knows this. If you have everything, you are never in need.” Practicing asteya, then, reminds us to be grateful for what we do have and to be comfortable with who we are—to fully enjoy life as it is happening in the present moment.
Reflecting on these truths, along with asana practice, meditation, mantra, and the study of yoga philosophy, I began to slowly develop a solid inner core. I learned to believe in myself more—to trust my higher Self to guide me toward what is right or wrong for me, instead of being swayed by the opinions and values of others.
According to the Yoga Sutra (2.37), when we perfect the principle of asteya, riches come to us. Although material wealth may unexpectedly appear when we need it, true spiritual wealth comes when we’re complete and whole within ourselves. We don’t have to steal objects, or people’s time and energy, to get attention and to feel good about ourselves. We can rest in the unconditional love and wisdom that reside within us and experience the wholeness of our true Self. From this sense of inner fullness, we naturally want to give to others, rather than to take from them. And the more we give of ourselves, the more riches of all kinds—worldly and spiritual—come back to us.