People come to yoga for many different reasons whether it’s for a workout, to alleviate pain, to de-stress or for mental health. But for some, yoga is a practice for achieving a better looking face. Yes, really.
Two years ago, Leah Bernstein started the Happy Face Yoga program to bring a more youthful look to her face naturally. In one session, the 65-year-old public-school teacher from Long Island, New York, felt like the muscles in her face were getting a work out. Within two weeks, she started seeing anti-aging effects.
“I got to tell you, I felt the results right away,” Bernstein says. “Even the next morning. Those bags under my eyes just started to lift and everything started to lift. It was crazy.”
Bernstein’s sense that she was reshaping her face with exercise has some evidence behind it. In March of 2018, a small study published in JAMA Dermatology found that 16 middle-aged women looked about three years younger after a few months of a face exercise regimen.
Participants attended two live, 90-minute muscle-resistant facial exercise training sessions with Gary Sikorski, founder of the Happy Face Yoga method. After the initial training sessions with the instructor, participants performed daily 30-minute exercises for eight weeks at home. After week eight, they continued practicing exercises at home for another 12 weeks.
According to Sikorski, face yoga involves strength training for the muscles in and around your face. You start most of the facial movements by smiling, then you place your hands on your face or neck and use your fingers for isometric resistance.
Then you make different expressions with your face by lifting, pulling or pushing your face muscles for time or reps. You use your fingers for some of the exercises as resistance, like weights on a lifting machine. Certain exercises you hold for ten seconds to a minute, while others you do reps of up to 40 at a time.
When you workout your face, the muscles bulk up and round out. Ideally, this creates a fuller face with less wrinkles and sagging.
Dr. Murad Alam, vice-chair of dermatology and professor of dermatology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, is a senior author of the study. “The surprising part to me was that even blinded raters could detect a difference because it has to be a substantial result for someone to see it visibly on a reliable basis,” he says. “It’s not a precise measurement. If it was a tiny difference, they might not be able to detect it. So it was a big enough difference that patients could detect it, and raters could detect it. So that was notable and somewhat surprising to me.”
Researchers saw the most substantial differences in participant’s cheeks and around the center of the face, which appeared to be more lifted and full. They believe this is because it’s where larger, more easily toned facial muscles are located.
[SEE: Eating for Your Skin.]
Happy Face Yoga
There are some traditional yoga breathing techniques where you make different facial movements. They are not, however, meant to reshape your face.
While it’s unclear exactly where facial exercises originated, they have been around a long time. In 1959 Senta Maria Runge published an article in Vogue describing facial exercises and later a book called “Facial Lifting By Exercise.” Even health guru Jack Lalanne taught facial exercises that you can still view on YouTube.
Sikorski, now 62 and back in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, learned facial movements from a yoga teacher in Houston, which he found online. He re-branded them as Happy Face Yoga about 14 years ago and started offering classes.
Classes grew in popularity, he was featured in the local news and his seminars started selling out. He made a DVD which featured facial yoga exercises that build strength in the different musculature in and around the face. The exercises include movements to:
— Lift cheeks.
— Strengthen and firm your eye area.
— Diminish your furrows.
— Smooth your neck.
In these exercises, you contort your face and use your hands to properly locate the muscles in your face to perform the poses correctly. Each movement has a different purpose for developing a younger, firmer face.
As Sikorski’s DVD grew in popularity, he got a call from Northwestern to participate in the study. “They called me up one day and said, ‘Hey, we do a lot of crazy things at Northwestern. We don’t think this is going to work, but we’d like to do it, are you interested?’ I said, ‘sure,'” Sikorski says. “They flew me up there. I taught the course to the study group. And they called me up and said, ‘Wow, we’re really amazed. We got the results in.'”
After the study, Sikorski’s Happy Face Yoga hit a level of popularity that landed him features in The New York Times, Dr. Oz and the Today Show, to name a few.
Facial Strength Training
When Bernstein saw Happy Face Yoga’s research results, she was intrigued. She practices a variety of facial exercise programs, including Facercize. But Happy Face Yoga is the most challenging because it provides heavy lifting for her face.
“When I want to work out hard for my face, then I go to Happy Face Yoga,” Bernstein says. “I find it much more difficult.”
Alam believes that we tone facial muscles, much like we strengthen our bodies at the gym. And that provides a more youthful, full look especially around the center of the face.
“If you do these exercises, possibly what you’re doing is building the muscle that’s even underneath the subcutaneous fat,” Alam says. “And that’s compensating for the atrophy or the thinning of the fat. And actually filling that space and thereby making your skin less wrinkly and your face more full.”
Alam believes that we lose volume in the face because as we age, our skin remains the same, but the fat layer underneath the skin becomes thinner. This makes our skin sag, and we get wrinkles.
But if we do exercises, we might be able to build muscle underneath the fat that’s compensating for atrophy as we age. It’s possible that we can fill that space and make our skin less wrinkly and the face more full.
How You Practice Face Yoga Matters
Much like a traditional yoga practice, how you perform facial exercise makes all the difference in your results. Sikorski suggests that people should be careful of those who jumped on the facial yoga bandwagon as a fad.
“There’s too many people that are improperly teaching facial yoga.” Sikorski says that those who want to see the best results should practice facial yoga that strengthens muscles and doesn’t just stretch or massage them. New students should practice daily.
For several years, Bernstein did the Happy Face Yoga regimen daily and saw significant benefits. “You have to try it, you’ll be amazed,” Bernstein says. “And it’s just a function of time. You have to create the space and prioritize it.”
Although better studies need to be done, Alam also believes that any facial exercise program that strengthens the muscles in the face and is consistent seems to be most effective.”I don’t think it’s a specific, magical regimen that will get this result,” Alam says. “I think if anyone did facial exercises that worked the same muscle groups, they could expect to get similar results.”
Is Face Yoga Really Yoga?
Sikorski was certified to teach facial exercises from a yoga teacher in a yoga studio. He also mostly offers his seminars at yoga studios, whose owners are generally welcoming. And he hasn’t had anyone question him on using the word yoga to describe his program.
While it is a practice that is admittedly about outward appearance, face yoga practitioners like Bernstein view sitting with the computer and performing different facial movements very much the same as a yoga practice where you roll out your mat.
“To me the purpose of yoga is to practice,” Bernstein says. “Everything is practice. It’s a time to be with yourself. Like with facial yoga, I don’t pick up the phone when I do it. It’s an extremely mindful time, which is like mat yoga for me. I have a purpose.”
Bernstein explains that she approaches her facial yoga exercises like any other yoga poses she would do on her mat. If she cannot yet achieve the facial shape or key action, she does what she can and keeps practicing and makes progress.
It’s helped her feel more grounded and happy. She also has to be present during her face yoga practice, and that creates a level of focus and calm.
Like a Face Lift?
While more studies need to be done, facial exercises are cost effective and safe — especially when compared to alternatives like cosmetic surgery. This pilot study shows it has promise to have a positive effect on the physical look of the face. It has changed Alam’s perspective on facial exercises.
“What it’s taught me, bigger picture, is to keep an open mind,” Alam says. “Because there can be some therapies that sound outlandish to begin with but until you test them, you don’t know the answer. Just because something isn’t made by a big pharmaceutical company doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.”
Bernstein will continue to practice her Happy Face Yoga exercises to maintain her younger appearance.
“I would never stop,” Bernstein says. “Because you know what happens when you stop. Your muscles atrophy. It’s like anything else, once you see results, you’re forced to keep doing it.”
[See: Foods That Age You.]
More from U.S. News