Asteya, non-stealing. Perhaps one of the easiest to abide by yamas, and yet Patanjali felt it worth a place in the cannon of ethical ways to work with others.
1) Broaden the definition
The full definition of asteya is not taking things belonging to others (Edwin Bryant). Still, when taken at face-value, it seems obvious – don’t take another student’s awesome yoga mat home with you while they’re in the bathroom.
But what if we broaden our definition of “things”, and start to include “time”, “talent”, “love”, “space”, “energy”, etc? Then asteya becomes a practice very much alive in each moment – choosing to take up an extra seat on the subway for your bag, or not – choosing not to ask that extra favor of a friend when they are already so busy – choosing not to take your frustration out on a loved one because they will always be there – choosing not to plan your grocery shopping during savasana or meditation – it can become a really interesting lens for viewing our choices and actions.
How about if we broaden our definition of “others”, and start to include “the Earth”, “animals”, “our ancestors”, “future generations”, etc? Then asteya becomes a practice that peers into every nook of our lives – choosing to use an animal’s fur to keep yourself warm, or not – choosing not to add additional pollution or usage strain to the water supply of your grandchildren – choosing to watch a documentary on the condition of the Earth (11th Hour, Flow, Earthlings, I am …) to become more knowledgeable of ways we may inadvertently be stealing from the Earth – choosing not to take the credit due to someone who came before you – asteya starts to become something a lot more complex and fascinating to work with than simple theft.
2) Letting go
At the root of asteya – is letting go of desire. If you don’t desire that awesome yoga mat belonging to the yogi next to you, you won’t be inclined to steal it. Letting go of desire is cutting asteya off before it can even become an issue, and it’s also the foundation of the Budhha’s Four Noble Truths, some of the earlier practices in the Yoga Sutras such as Vairagya, and the heart of the Bhagavad Gita’s karma yoga.
Letting go of desire though, is a “biggie” in terms of our practice. As Ram Dass says – surrender is only surrender when there is no surrender. In other words – letting go doesn’t really work if you stop drinking coffee, but think of it as much as you used to drink it.
The next time you practice asana, try this intention: start by focusing on the breath. Notice the inhales and exhales, gradually lengthening them to a comfortable asana practice duration. Then let go of noticing the breath, and don’t replace it with anything.
Too often in our practices, we’re busy thinking something yogic, we’re busy thinking anatomy, we’re multitasking in our asana. One of the hardest practices can be to let go of trying to change your awareness to be directed in a specific way – without letting it go wherever it wants. It’s one of the things I most enjoy when I take class. So often in my home practice I multitask thinking about students, and teaching points, wording, dharma talks, actions of energy, etc. When I take class it’s incredibly mentally freeing to just let go, even of focusing on the breath. It’s also a great trust exercise that your breath will continue to serve your asana without your strict attention. Although the breath is a great starting point – so when the mind does get distracted and you notice, start again with noticing intently the inhales and exhales, and then let go again. And again. And again.
“I want to sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think.”