The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali is the foundational text of yoga philosophy to this day and is still used by millions of yoga practitioners and students worldwide. Written in a question-and-answer format, The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali deals with the theory and practice of yoga and the psychological question of the liberation of the soul from attachments. The book published by the Library of Arabic Literature is a new edition and translation into English of the Arabic translation and commentary on this text by the brilliant eleventh-century polymath al-Bīrūnī. This excerpt from the text explains the eight limbs (also known as ashtanga) of yoga.
Question: What are these limbs and how many are there?
Answer: They are eight in number. The foremost is, generally speaking, abstaining from evil. More specifically, it is not harming any living thing, and refraining from lying, stealing, and fornication, as well as avoiding any association with this world. All these must be relinquished unconditionally, without exceptions such as specifying a time and a place. It is not enough to avoid committing them; one must also not command others to do so or be pleased with their perpetrators. Although there are many types of evil depending on their scale, form, and the quality of their motives, they all arise from greed, anger, or nescience. What is more, their forms differ on a scale ranging from extreme excess to severe deficiency. When things become known via their opposites and contraries, along with the knowledge that he who kills has, through nescience, caused pain and distress to the victim, then the requital for such an action will clearly also include its constituents—namely, nescience and suffering. This being the case, he who does not kill is recompensed with the opposite of these two. Furthermore, nothing inimical will attempt to harm him. Why would anything attack him when he considers any two antagonists to be equal, holding the same view and attitude toward both. He would not, for example, judge in favor of the snake against the mongoose or vice versa. Lying, on the other hand, is essentially abhorrent, whereas he who favors truthfulness is rewarded in heaven’s highest ranks. He who guards his soul from the demon of robbery and the depravity of theft is given the ability to see treasures both above- and belowground. He who keeps it from the defilement of fornication develops the ability to accomplish any extraordinary feat he wishes, his soul encompassing times and places. He who avoids interaction with the world will secure knowledge of the condition and situation of his past state before acquiring his present form.
The second limb is inner and outer holiness. He who intends to clean and purify the body finds that its contamination increases, causing him to revile and hate it and turn to the love of what is pure, thus preferring the soul over the body. He who fasts from food will temper his body, purify its members, and sharpen its senses. He who finds contentment free of greed will be relieved from toil and released from slavery. He who frequently invokes the angelic and spiritual beings establishes contact with them in this way, as they become familiar to him in his mind. He who devotes himself to the glorification and remembrance of God will reject anything other than God in his mind, reverting to and concentrating uniquely upon Him.
The third limb is stillness. Anyone who covets something will chase after it, which involves movement, and such desire-driven movement will dispel any relaxation of tension. By drawing his mind’s attention away from all individual and collective objects, he cultivates genuine stillness. He thereby gains immunity from the harms of heat or cold, from the suffering caused by hunger and thirst, and from feeling any needs—a state of restfulness results.
The fourth limb is cutting off the flow of breath through inhalation and exhalation, then suspending both movements, as a diver in watery depths dispenses with air. The turbidity in the mind of one who accomplishes this disappears, enabling it to do whatever he wants.
The fifth limb is sense withdrawal, which leaves him with only an inner consciousness and bereft of the knowledge that behind the sense organ is a separate object. This enables him to fully control and possess the sense organs.
The sixth limb is calmness and serenity, to allow the mind to concentrate on a single object.
The seventh limb is maintaining thought upon the object that the mind is concentrating on, in a state of absorbed unity, without exposure to multiplicity that would cause division and dispersal into various stages, or diversion to another object.
The eighth limb is total commitment to its maintenance until thought becomes unified with its intended object.