Asteya, meaning non-stealing, is the third yama, or ethical restraint, which is the 1st limb of yoga. Stealing is the unauthorized appropriation of what belongs to others. When we practice asteya, we do so in intention (non-coveting in thoughts and speech) as well as in action or deed (not taking what belongs to others without permission). Asteya also includes subtler forms of taking, such as cheating, deception and manipulation.
When non-stealing (asteya) is established, all jewels, or treasures present themselves, or are available to the Yogi. – Yoga Sutra 2.37
The root cause of stealing is a sense of lack. The emotions of desire, want, desperation, craving, and greed drive the action of grasping for what is desired. There is a lack of faith in self to provide what is needed and a lack of compassion for others’ wellbeing. When we aren’t mindful, our emotions override our higher values or allow us to rationalize taking without permission.
Taking what belongs to others often causes a cycle of harm. To steal is to harm self and others, which is also a violation of the first yama (ahimsa). The one who steals fails to grow – he or she doesn’t learn to accept what is here or to create what is needed. The one who is stolen from now suffers; feels a sense of lack or indignation, from which further harmful thoughts, speech and action may arise.
When we think of asteya in its subtler forms, we can even steal from ourselves. We can cheat ourselves out of opportunities, deceive ourselves, and manipulate situations preventing ourselves from evolving and growing. For instance, we can squander our time with meaningless distractions or rob ourselves of a moment by not being present.
The best way to practice asteya is to cut off its causes at the root. One of the antidotes to craving is compassion. Compassion in action includes dana & seva – charity and service to others. In Buddhism there is a realm of suffering in which beings are perpetually starving, but they can’t get enough to eat. Even with a banquet of delicious food before them, they cannot feed themselves because their forks and spoons are several feet long. They are so preoccupied with their own hunger, it never occurs to them to feed each other across the table. We can practice asteya by understanding that in serving others, we also nourish ourselves.
Understanding the impermanence and emptiness of all things is also useful in practicing asteya. Realizing that no object has intrinsic value in and of itself – its value is in the stories and concepts we create about it. In addition, nothing lasts forever – neither the temporary state of want we experience nor the pleasure of possession of any object. All things change in time, so stealing can only provide a temporary sense of relief. However, the harmful effects of stealing can ripple out far beyond the initial victim.
We can also practice asteya by cultivating an attitude of abundance, focusing on what is here already. When we look closely we can see that we already have everything we truly need. Knowing that “I am enough” brings with it the courage and strength to follow the path, with persistence and devotion, toward liberation.