The concept of Asteya has preoccupied me for more than a week now, ever since I went to an open class at Yoga Shanti. It was my birthday. The Yoga Shanti studio is beautiful, with walls painted gold. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling and the belt-driven ceiling fan is not only an elegant feat of engineering, but also looks like infinity in action.
Asteya translates as “not stealing.” It is one of the five yamas–the ethical precepts that comprise the first limb of ashtanga yoga. But its meaning runs deeper than simply “not stealing,” and includes rooting out deep beliefs about deprivation and scarcity that can cause greed and hoarding and theft.
After the class, I felt good. I was attuned, breathing more freely, energized. But when I approached the shelves by the entrance to fetch my sneakers, they were gone.
At first, I couldn’t grasp their disappearance. I checked several times. I rooted under the benches, then dashed back to the studio room hoping I might have left them there. The sneakers hadn’t been cheap but their price was nothing compared to the prescription orthotics I wore inside them. Without orthotics, I suffer bunion pain, bursitis, plantar fasciitis and the myriad tedious physical ailments of “problem feet.”
The Yoga Shanti Studio is located on the ground floor of an office building. A person has to enter the building lobby then walk through another set of double doors on the left. Directly inside that second set of double doors are the shelves that house the shoes we must remove before entering the studio room. The front desk is situated further inside. Beyond that, are lockers. I could have stored my sneakers in a locker but it didn’t occur to me. They were snazzy, pink and silver, but they weren’t new, and I didn’t consider them valuable. One of them had a hole in the top where my right front toe sticks up.
The people at the front desk assured me that no one had entered while the class was in session because they would have seen it. Which meant that someone who’d practiced yoga in the class with me must have taken my sneakers.
The studio manager was as shocked and disturbed as I was. What kind of sneakers were they? she asked. I couldn’t recall. Other yogis were equally concerned, and bent down to check the floor around them. The urge to help prevailed, as did talk about the “mistake” someone had made, walking off in shoes that weren’t theirs, with unique orthotics molded to feet that weren’t theirs. Someone must have had “yogi brain,” they said. The manager gave me cab fare. Everyone was very kind.
But during the cab ride home, I began to brood. I was wearing loaner flip-flops. It was ironic, and a violation, to have my personal belongings vanish from an environment dedicated to cultivating trust. The idea of myself as a victim threw me into such a violent paroxysm of annoyance I could only discharge it by seeking blame. First, I condemned myself for not paying attention, just shoving the sneakers in the shelf and waltzing into the studio to announce my birthday to the teacher—what hubris! I was being punished! I also blamed the studio and the yoga industry in general, filled as it is with hype and hypocrisy and phrases like yogi brain.
An email was sent out that evening from the yoga center. It began with this question:
Hello friends, did you perhaps leave yoga class with “yogi brain” AND possibly the wrong pair of shoes tonight?
I understand that the term “yogi brain” is supposed to refer to a post-yoga bliss that spawns absentmindedness, and that it’s a harmless term, but it irked me beyond reason. Obliviousness is not the intention of yoga, as I understand it. Yogi brain, for me, suggests a free, uncluttered mind, not a blissed-out fog, and I should like to experience greater clarity by becoming more conscious, not less.
At any rate, I believe “thief brain” would be the more accurate term. I believed this from the beginning but I didn’t feel comfortable saying it aloud when everyone was so solicitous at the yoga center. It seemed wrong to express something so cynical, even if it was true. I didn’t want to be the one to state the harsh reality. Plus, I was afflicted with self-doubt. What if this assumption of theft emerged from my own distrustful, anxious mind, and if I opened up to the love and compassion around me, then my sneakers and my orthotics would be returned with a friendly oops, sorry, mistake. I didn’t want to undermine that possibility by reaching premature conclusions.
But I envisioned a mean and covetous young woman, someone beautiful and entitled, a dancer perhaps, reveling in her own nimble-fingered cleverness as she slipped the sneakers in her bag. Later, she’d be at some bar, laughing at me with her friends. Later still, she’d recoil at the hole created by my big toe and dump the sneakers in the garbage because it was all a game to her. She didn’t want them anyway. Ew, she’d say as she chucked them.
On the other hand, the yogi-brain email was written to allow a remorseful person to save face, though the more time that passes, the less likely it is that any face-saving remorse will occur. Which brings me to another yoga practice I am forced to learn and re-learn and learn again. It’s called letting go. Aparigraha is also one of the yamas. It means to take only what is necessary, and not exploit a situation, and also implies relinquishing attachment to things, understanding that impermanence is the only constant.
There’s the old saying: I cried because I had no shoes, then I met a man who had no feet. It wove through my mind like a mantra.
What was left unclaimed on the shelves of the yoga studio on the afternoon my sneakers were stolen was an old, beat-up pair of black flip-flips.
For me, letting go requires inventing another story, not the tale of the stupid sucker (me) and the cunning opportunistic crook, but a story of someone in deep financial trouble, facing eviction perhaps, someone in the arts who practices yoga and finds herself in an untenable position. Maybe she, too, has problem feet but orthotics aren’t affordable. Her feet are so similar to mine that when she laced the sneakers and walked out the door, she’d never felt so nurtured, and her feet had never felt so good. Perhaps she regrets that she had to steal them, but rationalizes that she needed them more than I did. Maybe she actually needs them more than I do. I will never know.
Good-bye sneakers. You served me well, orthotics. Enjoy and wear them proudly, whoever you are who has them now, I’m letting them go. They’re gone.