There’s a plague in our community, leaving nary a yoga teacher uninfected. No, it’s not toenail fungus, though that appears to be epidemic, too – it’s the hideous overuse of the verb to lay, as in the ubiquitous instruction to “lay down on your mats.” Which, of course, is impossible.
If you didn’t catch the problem back there in paragraph one, let’s (ahem) lay it out more explicitly. The teacher probably wants her students to lie down. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to “lay down” because the verb to lay needs help from a word that will get laid, like yoga teachers used to back in the 70s. To put it in yoga terms, think of to lay as an Iyengar verb that has to use props to stay aligned. It’s what grammarians call transitive; it requires a direct object. On the other hand, to lie is more of an Ashtanga verb – it needs no props because it’s intransitive and can practice on its own. Therefore, a yogini can lie down in corpse pose; she can lie on her mat; she can even lie about having her period if she really wants to do headstands, but it’s unlikely she can “lay down” on a mat unless she’s come to class with a bag of the stuff, or has a hole in her down jacket.
Okay, you agree it’s a problem, but hardly the linguistic equivalent of a plague? Think again. Like a plague, it’s coming from all directions, spreading rapidly and threatening to kill innocent bystanders. Not only are the verb to lie and all manner of waterfowl in mortal danger, but so is our leaders’ credibility. In the past year, I’ve heard this mistake not only from scores of yoga teachers, but also orthopedic surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, physical therapists, masseuses, dermatologists and pediatricians (yes, I have an injury and kids). It begs the question, how much confidence can a patient or student have in these supposed gurus when the first thing they say is wrong?
Perhaps even worse than the slips of supposedly well-educated professionals, yoga teachers’ bad English bugs us plebes down here on the mat because they’re supposed to be the drill sergeants of mindfulness. These same folks would have a (sacred) cow before they’d mispronounce even a syllable of the Sanskrit “Invocation to the Sage Patanjali” (who in addition to being the author of the Yoga Sutras, was also a grammarian). Still, such teachers’ lack of attention to detail is spreading a mindless verbal virus faster than a preschooler’s flu. Yoga teachers address anywhere from a handful to a hundred students an hour, amplifying their mistakes along a broad swath of yoganity. Plus, it goes against the yogic principle of ahimsa (non-violence) to kick American Standard English when she’s down. Talk radio and Corporation-speak have bloodied our mother tongue so badly that we can no longer rely on passive remedies like the yogic mantra to “let it go.” It must be stopped.
It’s time to use a finger-pointing mudra (I’m not sure which – perhaps the one the Buddha used to hail taxis) to identify the confusing usage that lies in wait to entrap the unwary speaker. The fault lies with the past tense of the verb to lie.
Indeed, the few readers who haven’t turned the page yet probably noticed another “mistake” in that earlier blanket statement. Just as in yoga asana practice, in English the deeper we get into it, the more that blanket statements turn out to be false. Technically, there is a second, grammatically correct way to lay on a mat – and it has nothing to do with birds. It just has to have been performed at some point before now – that is, in the past tense. It’s fine to say “yesterday, she lay on the mat in savasana for ten minutes before she left class.” It’s also good yoga practice. But if a yoga teacher both literally and figuratively “in the present” wants someone to get down on the floor she must command us to lie down there.
Luckily, yoga provides a solution and unlike a bubonic flea, this bug can be stopped dead with a little mental hygiene. Unfortunately, the work requires a great deal of us. Like keeping our toes together in chair pose, students of yoga must employ mindfulness to combat laziness and bad habits in our leaders, too. Like Gandhi and civil rights protesters, we must call attention to the problem, not the perpetrator. Rather than whisper “lie” whenever we hear the mistaken verb (which is not only rude but unsuccessful, as the author found out the hard way), it’s time to draw our teachers’ attention after class and use the verb correctly. Of course, it’s important to do this in a yogic way – naturally, nonchalantly (but with intention!), such as asking a question that begins, “When I lie on the mat,” or “when I lay myself down on the mat...?” See that direct object “myself” there? That’s how mindful yogis get out of the mistake gracefully when we’ve already embedded the error in the beginning of a sentence. As with our faith in yoga, we must assume that “with practice, all is coming.”
Repeating the correct form should eventually shed enough (with luck, divine) light on the subject to counterbalance past mistakes. I just hope it happens before anyone starts pelting clueless yoga teachers with feathers.
Lisa Moricoli Latham is a humorist and professional pain in the asana. Please submit any pressing grammar or etiquette questions to her website lisalatham.com