Skip the Botox. Try Facial Yoga
By Kate Stinchfield
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For people who deem needles too scary and surgery too drastic, the latest anti-aging fad may appeal: facial yoga. Based on the premise that facial muscles, like any other muscle, need exercise to stay toned, enthusiasts of facial yoga say the regular practice of making kissy faces or wagging one's tongue can reduce worry lines and wrinkles — and even create a little peace within.

In New York City, Annelise Hagen, a devoted yogi, former actress and author of The Yoga Face: Eliminate Wrinkles with the Ultimate Natural Facelift, runs a weekly facial yoga class. Hagen says she started to develop her face-based technique when she realized that her students, mostly well-to-do, well-educated professionals, were practicing yoga but getting Botox injections during their lunch breaks. "It didn't seem to be in the spirit of yoga to me," she says.

At a recent Friday evening session, Hagen led students through a combination of traditional yoga poses, primal grunts, theatrical expressions and lots of laughter. Hagen's facial exercises include the Smiling Fish (purse your lips and smile slightly), the Marilyn (blow kisses while keeping your forehead smooth) and the Satchmo (puff out your face and transfer air from cheek to cheek). Lined up in front of the mirror, their fingers pressed into their foreheads and their tongues lolling, the participants looked deranged, but they seemed to be onto something good. "When we walk in, you can see how tired and stressed out everyone is," says student Kathy Healey. "By the time we leave, you can see the lines fading."

At least one student thinks the practice has taken a few years off her face. "I look at myself now and say, 'That old lady is leaving,'" says Irene Elmore, who has been attending Hagen's class for about a month. "You can see the difference around the eyes and forehead." Its fountain-of-youth allure is quickly gaining facial yoga a following in health clubs and yoga studios across the U.S. Leta Koontz holds Fresh Face Yoga workshops at her Pittsburgh studio for a mostly female clientele that ranges in age from 30 to 70. Koontz packs her sessions with inversion positions, arguing that keeping the head lower than the heart increases youth-giving blood flow to the face. "It's like natural Botox," she says. "Stress shows on our face, probably more than any other place on our body."

While stretching may tighten tired faces, dermatologists warn that good form is key. "If someone were doing a bizarre contortion, they could spasm. They might actually cause permanent damage," says Dr. Min-Wei Christine Lee, director of the East Bay Laser and Skincare Center in Walnut Creek, Calif. "But [facial yoga] could help train muscles not to go into those worry lines." It can also help train injured faces to move again. Rose Hong Tran, a Houston-based Hatha yoga instructor, worked with local physicians to develop her specialized yoga facial toning technique. Tran says her workshops have helped increase mobility in clients with partial facial paralysis and problems like crooked smiles. "Every time you're working with your facial muscles, you increase circulation to your face 10 times," says Tran, who has certified other instructors to use her technique throughout Texas and in Atlanta. "It helps sharpen your mind, too."

Whether their reasons are mental, medical or motivated by appearance, more yoga enthusiasts nationwide are trying out the facial yoga trend. "I get people for all kinds of reasons," Hagen says. "I think it's kind of cathartic for people to be in a room making ridiculous faces and laughing." So, if the practice doesn't smooth out all your wrinkles, for a while at least it lets you feel like a kid.