Asteya: Abiding in Generosity
Our modern world is quite materialistic. We are encouraged to acquire for ourselves not only material possessions, but status and accolades. This drive to gain and hold onto things is in opposition to the spirit of Asteya, the third Yama as written by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. Asteya translates roughly as non-stealing, or not taking from others that which is not freely given. Another way of looking at this Yama is to see beyond taking, and look at it in terms of giving. Yoga educator and author Nischala Joy Devi translates asteya as “Abiding in generosity and honesty,” and adds that when we are able to do so, “material and spiritual prosperity is bestowed.”.
Asteya builds on the first two Yamas, which are Ahimsa, or kindness and compassion, and Satya, or truthfulness. If we have cultivated in ourselves a spirit of kindness and compassion for others, then we will begin to see ways we can use our resources to help others. If we are truthful about our time here on Earth, we will be able to see that we come into the world with nothing, and we will leave that way too. Not even the body can go with us when our time is up. So, it goes against nature, our nature, to strive to gain and hold on to things we cannot keep, no matter how hard we try.
In its simplest application, asteya asks that we not take from others. This is probably easy to apply to helping ourselves to others belongings, but what about another person’s time? As simple way to observe asteya is to ask someone if they have time to talk on the phone when you call, or make it clear that you will need 5-10 minutes of time if they are willing to give it. A second way to honor this idea is to be on time when meeting with another person. This communicates that you value their time and you do not see their time as yours for the taking. This can also be applied to another person’s effort. Saying thank you and showing appreciation to a person that does a service for you creates an exchange, where before there may have been only taking.
From here we can move from honoring resources, through creating meaningful exchanges with others, to giving. As we begin to embody asteya, we begin to see and feel ourselves as conduits for life force and energy, which includes resources, like money and time. If we are not the owners of these things, but instead the temporary caretakers, then we see that things will come and they will go. With this comes the understanding that we can add value to the lives of others by giving freely that which is ours to give. The mind and the heart open to giving, and the magical thing that happens is, we receive.
Have you read about or encountered someone that is a giver, and noticed that that person never seems to go without? The law of karma states that what we put out into the world will return to us. So, by giving we open ourselves up to receive the full abundance that life has to offer. In addition, we open our hearts to joy, for joy is in giving and serving. Conversely, have you ever encountered someone who has an abundance of resources, and yet does not share or help others, but is concerned merely with acquiring more? Upon reflection, can you sense true happiness emanating from that person, along with a sense of freedom and an open heart, or is the energy more of mistrust and fear?
This is not to say we should not strive to provide for ourselves and our families, or that there is shame in enjoying a beautiful home or driving a nice car, or seeking comfort in our lives. Asteya asks that we acquire material goods without treading on others to do so, and that we recognize when we are acquiring things by taking from others, and when we have moved from abundance to excess.
A wonderful way to begin to observe asteya is to incorporate it into your yoga asana practice. Next time you are on your mat, treat it an as inquiry into how you are embodying this concept at this time. This could actually begin before you even step onto your mat. Are you someone who is late to class? Can you see that this is stealing from the students who are already in the room, seated and ready to begin? Do you slap your mat down in a frenetic noisy way, stealing peace and quiet from the students quietly waiting for class to begin? Do you approach other students to chat before or after class without asking if they are open to it at that time? All of these are ways you can modify your behavior to observe asteya.
Once your practice beins, notice first the breath. Are you rushing through the breath cycle, stealing from one part or the other in an effort to get on with it? In effect, you are stealing the fullness of the moment when you do not allow it to unfold completely. Moving on into your poses, are you anxious to get through the warm up, taking from your body the sweetness of opening up slowly and revealing to you it’s needs and desires for your practice? In more challenging poses, do you disperse the effort throughout the body, or ask certain muscles to compensate or do all the work? This is taking from them the balance of sthira (stability) and sukha (ease) that should be present in all our poses.
Once you can clarify where steya (stealing) is happening in your practice, you can begin to embody its opposite. The nature of the practice is to take root in the body and inform your actions off the mat as well. Before long, asteya will be something you are, not something you do.