July 1, 2011

When to Lay it Down and When to Get Laid.

A grammar primer for yoga teachers.


Photo: thevoiceclub.com

Venerable yoga teachers of the Anglophone world, a humble request. Whatever other unusual and possibly unpleasant demands you make of me in your classes, please—no, pretty please—don’t ever ask me to lay on my back again. For that matter, don’t ask me to lay on my mat. Or on a block or on a blanket, either. Don’t ask me to lay down on any of the above (or below). Don’t ask me to lay, period. And while we’re at it, getting it all out on the table, till death do us part, just one more thing: don’t ever, ever ask me to lay down in savasana. Just don’t.

It’s not that I have anything against poses of the supine persuasion, propped or unpropped, dead or undead—no, I’m as happy as the next exhausted vinyasa maven to hit my mat in a sweaty heap when the moment is right. But when the time comes, won’t you please just tell the truth and let me lie?

See here’s the thing: the English language is kind of confusing and sometimes slippery and occasionally sort of enraging in its arbitrariness. But here and there we find a rule, a firm one even, governing proper usage. And for those beings condemned to exist in the form realm, which is to say, all of you reading this, and me writing it, too, there’s a rule for this, a form if you prefer, and it’s not even that hard to learn.

Photo: lululemonathletica

You spend your days and nights twisting your bodies into pretzels at the behest of some lycra-clad Svengali and valiantly learning the basics of Sanskrit pronunciation (aparigraha? Anyone?)—but this simple monosyllable defeats many of you. Most of you. OK, just about all of you with whom I’ve ever come into contact.

So here it goes. Pay close attention. In fact, lie back and soak it in. This won’t hurt a bit.

Some verbs in English are Transitive, which means they go with a direct object. That’s a fancy way of saying they describe an action involving a thing—for example, I throw the ball. Intransitive verbs don’t require a direct object, a thing to go with them. Example: I throw up (OK maybe this isn’t the best example, since you can also throw up your dinner, but you get the point). Some verbs use the same form whether they are transitive or intransitive—for example, I walk vs. I walk the dog, intransitive vs. transitive.

With me so far? Good. Om. Here we go.

So, other verbs, annoying little bastards that they are, take a different form when transitive or intransitive. Lay/lie is one of these. Mystery solved.

In the transitive version, I lay my mat next to yours. See? Direct object. I lay my back on my mat, I lay the block under my shoulders, I lay my broken body in savasana. In the intransitive, by contrast, I lie next to you, when I lie on my mat. No object. Lie down in savasana. Thank you, I will lie down in savasana. I will lay my body down so I can lie in savasana. End of story.

Well, not quite. Just to make it even more vexing, I mean interesting, verbs with different transitive and intransitive forms take a different form in each of the tenses, present and past. And in the case of this cunning little doing word, the past tense of lie is, I’m afraid to say, lay. As in, after 90 minutes of crazy heart-opening flow, we finally lay down in savasana. And when we did, just to keep it interesting, we laid our bodies down.

If I’ve lost you here at the end, not to worry. I have for you a handy little table to make it all clear. It goes something like this:

Tense Intransitive Transitive

Photo: ideowl



I lie down. I lay my mat down.

I am sick of this and I am lying down. I am laying it down.


He lay down next to me. He laid his mat next to mine.

She had already lain down in savasana. She had laid her body down.

Lie/lay/lain vs lay/laid/laid. Look it up. I’m not lying.

Popular culture, of course, is not doing us any favors here. “Lay, Lady, Lay?” Technically, that should be, “lie, lady, lie,” except nobody wants to encourage his or her lady to lie. Nobody.

“Lay down, Sally”? Nah, that should be lie down, though I’m not sure Sally much cares.

Where Clapton and Dylan fail us, though, we can always turn to the indomitable Al Green, who summed it all up for us in one simple directive: “Lay it down, lay it down, lay it down.” Transitive. For the record. Thank you, I think I will.


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