"all the people
sharing all the world"
Restrain from stealing. The third ethical restraint, asteya, offered by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras seems easy enough to follow. Simply, don’t take what doesn’t belong to you. But, consider this … how often have you justified, as I have, parking in a restricted parking space, for just a few minutes while you run into a store for a couple of items? Is it stealing? Have you ever lifted a pencil from the office? What about forgetting to scan a small item in the grocery store and rationalizing upon discovery that it isn’t worth going back to pay for it? Are you stealing?
In our culture, there are laws that protect from theft of intellectual property, material goods, even parking spaces. Some would say that adhering to the letter of the law is the same as practicing asteya. I suspect that Patanjali would see it differently. Asteya asks us to be mindful of our self-serving actions, even the simplest ones.
I have encountered in the yoga studio some humorous exchanges between students that, upon deeper reflection, call to mind the opportunity to practice asteya. Here’s an example:
Student A: (arriving somewhat late to class, approaching student B who has positioned herself toward the front of the room) Excuse me, you are in my spot.
Student B: No, I’m not. You weren’t here when I put my mat down.
Student A: You’ve seen me in this spot every week for almost a year! You know it’s where I like to be.
Student B: That doesn’t make it your spot. You weren’t here. I put my mat down. You’ll have to find another spot.
Student A: Hmmphh! (squeezes her mat into a space between student B and another, causing the third student to scooch her mat over)
Me: (as teacher, from the front of the room, silently thinking) This is absurd. This is my studio. If anyone owns that spot, it’s me. I need to get on with class.
(Students A & B practice side by side, darting offended glances toward each other throughout class. The tension in the room is palpable.)
From the perspective of Student A, her “spot” was stolen and she was justified in demanding it back. From the perspective of Student B, the “spot” was available and she took it. From my perspective as the teacher and “owner” of the studio, the “spot” was actually mine and no one could justifiably lay claim to it. In reality, the studio space was rented. The “spot” belonged to none of us. From the perspective of asteya, that which was really stolen was the ambiance of an otherwise peaceful and cooperative community. Everyone in the room suffered that theft.
Asteya directs us to ask ourselves,” If I claim ownership to something that isn’t, in actuality mine, am I stealing?” Moreover, “In what subtle ways might I be depriving others of something they are entitled to?” In the example above, it seems obvious that there was no theft, yet, each individual involved could have examined her thoughts and actions more deeply. Had everyone been consciously practicing asteya, the scene could have unfolded with no negative impact on others. Here’s one scenario:
Student A: (arriving somewhat late to class, quietly finds a spot at the back of the room, gestures an apology and joins the practice)
Student A: (to student B) Excuse me, you are in my spot.
Student B: Oh, sorry. Let me move over and make room for you.
Some of you are thinking, “What pettiness! This isn’t even worth thinking about.” But, that’s exactly why I chose the example above. The practice of asteya can keep us from becoming entangled in such petty exchanges. Vowing not to steal, according Patanjali, reaches beyond the obvious, into the subtle and can have powerful effects on an entire culture.
Asteya, practiced on the world stage, by powerful leaders could result in a radical change in politics. Imagine a world in which heads of state consciously practice asteya, refusing to take possession of that which is not rightfully theirs. John Lennon put it this way, “Imagine all the people, living life in peace … Imagine all the people, sharing all the world.”
Practice asteya in small ways. The next time someone cuts in front of you to take a parking spot you’d been waiting for, consider whether the spot was yours to begin with. You can avoid unnecessary conflict and aggravation by realizing that you do not, in fact, have ownership of that spot. Simply find another. Let go of the self-righteous need to correct or punish the other. It’s a small contribution to peace and civility. With every act of asteya, small or large, the world becomes a better place. Imagine. That.
Inner Reaches Blog
Dee Gold M.A., ERYT-500
Dee is owner and director of Inner Reaches Yoga & Health. She has been teaching yoga and practicing healing arts for over 40 years.