Yoga for difficult times: Asteya

Yoga offers ancient solutions to modern problems. But you could also say yoga offers ancient solutions to ancient problems, because when things go sideways in our lives, the themes are as old as the sun. Grief, loss, disappointment, illness, anger, pain, frustration, loneliness: none of these are unique to the modern world. Your girlfriend may have broken up with you over Snapchat, but there’s nothing newfangled about the heartbreak you feel.

In this series of blog posts, I discuss yogic practices that we can use to navigate difficult times. In previous posts, I looked at ahimsa and satya, the first two yamas. Today I’ll be focusing on the third yama, asteya (“a-STAY-a”).

Asteya can be understood as “non-stealing and non-coveting”. How can we practice asteya during times of difficulty? Here are some thoughts:

Widen your definition of “non-stealing”: When we talk about non-stealing, most people think in materialistic terms, i.e. don’t take objects that don’t belong to you. But stealing isn’t always so concrete. It’s just as possible to steal someone’s time, energy, good mood, and sense of well-being. For example, someone who wouldn’t dream of shoplifting may routinely find themselves stealing people’s time by being late for appointments. Or someone who is diligent in returning borrowed items may find themselves stealing people’s good mood by being overly-critical.

When you’re struggling with something difficult, it’s helpful to have people to lean on. But no one likes to be taken for granted, so it’s important not to adopt an attitude of expecting people to be there for you. For example, you can show respect to friends and family by asking “Is this a good time?” when you call them on the phone. You can acknowledge the gift of their time and energy when they help you by saying, “Thanks for giving up your afternoon to do this for me”.

When you’re experiencing pain, it may be difficult to think about anything else. You may want to spend your time with friends and family discussing your situation. Perhaps you need to vent, or you want to feel understood, or you’re hoping for advice. In this case, a practice of non-stealing may mean paying close attention to the dynamics between yourself and your loved ones. Have you noticed people pulling away from you? Do you find yourself getting angry at people for not being available or for saying the wrong things? If so, you may be unintentionally draining people by asking them to play a role they are ill-equipped to play: that of a therapist. A trained therapist has the knowledge and resources to help you in ways that your loved ones may not. Practicing non-stealing means respecting the limits of what people can give you.

Stealing vs. coveting: To covet means to desire or yearn for something. As with stealing, coveting goes beyond the material world. You can covet your best friend’s new vegan-leather purse, but you can also covet her vegan boyfriend, her cool job, or her apparently effortless style. The relationship between coveting and stealing is real. To covet something is to want it for yourself, a kind of energetic stealing. While you may never act on it, the energy of your desire remains. But the main cost of coveting is the energy it steals from you and the dissatisfaction it breeds in your life. It’s hard to appreciate what you have when you’re constantly yearning for what you don’t have.

Unfortunately, in this new age of social media and image crafting, there’s more to covet than ever before: exotic vacations, new babies, beautiful home renos, a cute pair of shoes, the perfect family portrait with everyone smiling, and on and on as far as the finger can scroll. You may know enough about image crafting by now to know that what you get on social media isn’t the whole picture, but still, you come away with that yucky sense of dissatisfaction with your life.

Non-coveting as a practice: When things get tough, it’s even harder to applaud the successes of other people and even easier to feel as though your life is lacking. In this case, a two-pronged approach may be helpful.

First, stem the flow of what triggers you. Take a social media vacation or limit your exposure by checking accounts only once a day. Unsubscribe to e-newsletters and magazines that give you that want-y feeling. Keep reminding yourself that what you see on social media is almost surely a carefully edited peek into someone’s life, and not the whole story.

Second, make gratitude a practice. If you can generate a feeling of gratitude and appreciation for everything you do have, it will remove the emphasis from what you don’t have. A gratitude practice can take many forms. You could use a gratitude journal to note a pre-specified number of things you feel grateful for each night before bed. You could share something you’re grateful for aloud with others before a meal. You could make a practice of saying “thank you” aloud or in your head whenever you feel a sense of gratitude. For example, try saying “thank you” to your coffee maker as you pour yourself a cup! Find a practice that works for you and keep it up.

Like any practice, it’s much easier to develop a practice of asteya when things are going well. That way, when life becomes a struggle, you already have the habit in place.

How else can you practice asteya in difficult times? Let me know in the comments section below.

Image © 2016 Erin Bidlake

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