For anyone aspiring to attain the highest level of Ashtanga Yoga (that is, samadhi), one must work his or her way up the proverbial ladder. Each of the rungs on the ladder can be seen to represent one of the eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, and just as one would typically start off at the bottom and take one step at a time to ensure safe and steady progress, the same kind of methodology applies to the yoga practice. In order to have reasonable assurance of success as you move further up the path, it is critical that you not only gain mastery of the skills comprising the lower limbs of yoga, but continue to exercise them on a daily basis; as Patanjali suggests, “…we should remember that each of the eight limbs is equal to the others and necessary” (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Book 2—Sadhana Pada, Sutra 30, p.125). Due to the nature of the practice, however, those who are dedicated to their practice will find that this is a natural outcome.
Starting with the first two limbs of Ashtanga Yoga—yama (abstention) and niyama (observance)—these dictate how we should comport ourselves throughout our lives; in essence, they form a code of behavior that Patanjali devised, and they reflect the universal moral teachings that most of us learn from a very early age, regardless of our denomination, race or gender.
“The five points of yama, together with the five points of niyama, remind us of the Ten Commandments of the Christian and Jewish faiths, as well as of the ten virtues of Buddhism. In fact, there is no religion without these moral or ethical codes. All spiritual life should be based on these things. They are the foundation stones without which we can never build anything lasting.”
(The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Book 2—Sadhana Pada, Sutra 32, p.127)
Breaking out these two limbs further, we see that each consists of five governing ideals. Under the yamas, we find: ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (continence), and aparigraha (non-greed). The niyamas consist of the following: saucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (accepting pain and not causing pain), svadhyaya (study of spiritual books), and isvara pranidhana (worship of God or self-surrender).
Now, let us explore one of the yamas in particular: that which is called asteya, and which relates to non-stealing. Patanjali provides a succinct yet insightful look at the result of adopting asteya as one of our guiding principles:
“To one established in non-stealing, all wealth comes.” (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Book 2—Sadhana Pada, Sutra 37, p.133)
Patanjali employed dualities to illustrate the meaning of his sutras on several occasions; in this case, he is particularly effective at driving his point across to us. If we could only see the extent to which we deplete our world of its precious resources, and recognize the disparity between what we take and what we give or return, this could potentially be a catalyst for changing our robbing ways. It would, at the very least, cause us to become more conscientious about our habits; after all, being aware is the first step towards correcting the problem.
Regarding the problem of stealing from nature, we are all guilty of this action. The effects of our pillaging are evidenced by the numerous environmental issues that are cropping up all over the planet, some of which have grown large enough to become a global problem. Among these are global warming, the disappearance of our rain forests, the depletion of the ozone layer, and the pollution and diminution of our oceans and freshwater supplies. To make matters worse, these problems give rise to a myriad of other complications; these, too, have the potential to grow to mammoth proportions. One need not be a prophet to imagine the resulting cascading effect if we allow these problems to go untreated; already, we are seeing the repercussions, through climate changes, extinction of animal species, disturbances to the ecosystem balance, agricultural land shortages, and the constant search for new energy sources.
Thanks to the efforts of committed activists, scientists and environmental groups and experts, our nations’ leaders are starting to address these types of problems with due urgency; more and more, the associated correction action initiatives are being placed at the top of the priority lists. The challenge lies in ensuring that the entire global community is on board for contributing to the effort of rebuilding our world and renewing our natural resources.
“You see that pale, blue dot? That’s us. Everything that has ever happened in all of human history has happened on that pixel. All the triumphs and all the tragedies, all the wars, all the famines, all the major advances…it’s our only home. And that is what is at stake, our ability to live on planet Earth, to have a future as a civilization. I believe this is a moral issue, it is your time to seize this issue, it is our time to rise again to secure our future.”
Granted, we cannot return what we have already stolen from Earth, nor can we realistically expect to stop taking and consuming its riches; after all, we rely upon them in order to breathe, eat and drink. Hence, given our reliance upon the earth, a shift in attitude is required to transform our thievery into a less negative action.
To start, we should train ourselves to consume only as much as we need in order to sustain life; this will minimize the drain on our supplies. Gluttony, over-stocking and hoarding of articles are direct contraventions of this habit, and so we must guard ourselves as much as possible against falling under such temptations. Furthermore, we should cultivate a sense of gratitude for everything our planet has to offer to us. Therefore, for every breath of fresh air that we breathe in, every mouthful of food or drink that we swallow, and even every piece of clothing that we wear, we must receive them with an attitude of appreciation. Such is the direction given by Sri Swami Satchidananda, with respect to these articles of sustenance:
“If we want to become the world’s richest people, this is a very simple way. There’s no need to get into the stock market or even to go to work. Just practice non-stealing. All of us are thieves. Knowingly and unknowingly, with each breath, we pick nature’s pocket. Whose air do we breathe? It is nature’s. But that doesn’t mean we should stop breathing and die. Instead, we should receive each breath with reverence and use it to serve others; then we are not stealing. If we accept it and don’t give anything in return, we are thieves.”
(The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Book 2—Sadhana Pada, Sutra 37, p.133)
Additionally, it would be of great benefit to ourselves if we spent some extra time savoring our meals and avoid engaging in other activities, such as reading, watching TV, doing paperwork or studying, to name a few. When we occupy our minds with simultaneous tasks or deeds, we fail to be fully aware of what is happening in the present moment, and consequently, we lose out on part of the experience. This, in itself, is a form of stealing, since we are cheating ourselves out of an opportunity to learn and grow.
The treatment of our environment illustrates how we, as a society, commonly exert thoughtless and careless behavior, and provides us with some insight into the damage caused by it. Let us explore how non-stealing can be observed on an individual level, seeing as there are both obvious and subtle ways in which we fail to exercise asteya.
We are taught at an early age not to steal, and by and large, most people are able to adhere willingly to this guiding principle. This applies to both physical objects and the fruits of our labor (that is to say, our original conceived works). The imposition of laws, copyright and patents serves as a reminder to us all to respect the property and inventions of others. As such, grand larceny, copyright infringement, and even shoplifting tend to be isolated incidences.
An inflated sense of entitlement can cause us to claim things as rightfully ours for the taking or exploiting; in fact, this false perception is another example of how we fall short of observing asteya. Consider the example quoted by Sri Swami Satchidananda (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Book 2—Sadhana Pada, Sutra 37, p.133) regarding the workplace. Whenever we use office resources (photocopiers, stationary, internet connection, mail services) for non-work-related affairs, make personal telephone calls, take extended breaks without submitting a claim for approval, or simply waste time, we are effectively robbing our employer. Yet, we continue to take our jobs and all the associated tools for granted; thus, we can only hope that the efforts we put forth whenever we are fully engaged in our work cancel out those unproductive lapses.
How does the concept of non-stealing apply to information exchange and teaching? Quite often, we “borrow” ideas and concepts from others to build our lesson plans. In order to ensure that we are not inadvertently pirating someone’s work, we must scrutinize our intentions and how we deliver that information: are we certain that we are just imparting information for the benefit of the students, or are we more interested in gaining some recognition for ourselves? Have we given due credit to the authors or innovators? Would the author or innovator approve of the way that we are divulging his or her information?
Take, as an example, one’s yoga teaching practice. Occasionally, yoga teachers will draw from various traditions in order to build their asana sequences. In a similar way, a teacher may learn some new and interesting postures—through other teachers or practitioners—and decide to incorporate them into his or her yoga lessons. Can this action be construed as robbery? Perhaps, to some small degree, it could be classified as such. The likelihood that the originator of those borrowed moves would ever find out, or even be upset about it, is relatively remote. Nonetheless, there are ways that we can somewhat lessen the impact of our actions. One very simple conciliatory gesture would be to dedicate that particular class to the inventor from which we drew inspiration; in doing so, we are demonstrating gratitude and humility.
Finally, we should always strive to exercise asteya in our daily interactions; this can be achieved by simple means as well. Within the context of relations, non-stealing can mean reducing our reliance upon our family members and friends. When we initially enter into this world as babies, our dependency on our mothers is natural, as it is driven by our survival instinct; however, as we grow older, it is sometimes difficult to let go of this inclination towards clinginess. Ultimately, though, it is a drain of energy for those who are forced—willingly or not—to contend with their dependents. We need to recognize that, for every minute that we spend occupying someone’s attention, we are, in effect, stealing a minute of that person’s time that can never be regained. Hence, non-stealing manifests itself as respect and common courtesy.
To conclude, let us recall that true contentment cannot be bought, for in reality, there is nothing in this world that truly belongs to us; the earth’s bounty was intended for all of us to enjoy; therefore, any attempt to amass more than our fair share denies others of their due allocation. If enough people adopted the same greedy outlooks, our world would eventually become incapable of sustaining all life. In such a scenario, how could monetary wealth really offer us solace?
“If we are completely free from stealing and greed, contented with what we have, and if we keep serene minds, all wealth comes to us. If we do not run after it, before long it runs after us. If nature knows we aren’t greedy, she gains confidence in us, knowing we will never hold her for ourselves.”
(The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Book 2—Sadhana Pada, Sutra 37, p.133)
Gore, Al, An Inconvenient Truth, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0497116/quotes, Aug. 31, 2006.
Sri Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Virginia: Integral Yoga Publications, 1978.