Asteya is the third of the yamas or social observances given in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The yamas offer us a guide for living and interacting with the world around us. Rather than being a list of scriptural ‘dos and don’ts’, they are one of the eight limbs. given in the Yoga Sutra, to help cultivate a true integrity or wholeness within our being. Each of the limbs is important, and they work together, not as a step-by-step process, but as a synthesis or integration both within and without.
The Sanskrit word yoga means to yoke, or union. This union needs to arise firstly within our embodied sense of self. This is key as modern-day living tends to fracture our energies in different directions; our mind is easily pulled in many different directions due to the incessant patterns of mind, and the desire-stimulating nature of modern advertising in our fast-paced modern world. We all have a deep need for peace, but so often find ourselves in pieces. The practice of yoga by contrast, as well as other such mystical systems, aims to bring about a deepening of harmony, balance and ease within our body, mind and deeper sense of self.
From this understanding, we can more easily see the value of the yamas. Their application in our life engenders a greater sense of integration or harmony within our body, breath and mind and emotions.
Asteya is often translated as ‘non-stealing’. This can feel odd for a yoga practitioner as non-stealing would seem to be a given on the path of yoga. A better interpretation of Asteya is ‘non-hoarding’. We often accumulate things because we feel safe or secure having ‘our’ possessions around us; treasured books, ornaments, photos, clothes, furniture and so on. The same applies of course on a different level to our family, loved ones and friends. Finding such a secure and established space around us is a natural desire of the ego but one which, if clung to, keeps us bound to the material world around us. Such outer security is akin to a castle made of sand. In this ever-transient world, such a castle will inevitably change or crumble sooner or later.
The root of this need for security is often fear; fear of losing what is ‘ours’, or not having ‘enough’ or not having something when we need it; even the primordial fear of losing our sense of self. Fear in whatever form is debilitating; rather than facing it and working through it, we try to keep it at arm’s length through accumulating extraneous stuff around us.
Instead of accumulating unnecessary things, or being restricted by fear, Asteya offers us an alternative approach: to live our life in an uncluttered way, keeping only what we need around us. This creates space around us, and pertinently within us; space which helps us to be more present to the Now. Asteya is also based on a trust in life – that it will bring us whatever we need when we need it. Trust frees us while fear binds us, and it is this inner freedom that all the yamas help us to cultivate.
As we patiently cultivate Asteya and the rest of the yamas, a different and more subtle quality of mind results; one which opens new possibilities for our awareness. One such possibility is a yet deeper way of interpreting Asteya. This is the understanding that nothing is truly ours: we are only the temporary guardians of whatever we seem to possess. The word ‘guardian’ is important as we need to be practical; it is not about always keeping our doors unlocked or giving everything to charity. In the words of the Sufi saying, ‘trust in God but tie up your camel’. Be practical while knowing in your heart that nothing is really ours, not even our own body! We come onto this planet with nothing and we will leave it with nothing, other than the wealth of experiential understanding gathered in this life.
Let the final words come from Walt Whitman: ‘a wo/man is as rich as the things she/he does not possess’.