About eight years ago, Sophia Ha was on a journey of self-discovery. She was living in Indonesia after having spent some time in Australia, where she basked, perhaps a bit too much, in the Down Under sun. “I developed a bunch of lines across my face, particularly across my forehead,” she says. Not wanting to turn to cosmetic procedures, the then 28-year-old searched online for a natural wrinkle remedy. That’s when she first learned about face yoga.
“I was a little skeptical,” she says. “My background is in journalism, so I was like, ‘What is this?’” Still, she gave it a go and started doing a few exercises regularly. After four weeks, she couldn’t believe what she saw: The lines were gone.
“It definitely works,” she enthuses. She was so amazed by the results, she eventually decided to become certified as a face yoga coach. “From 28 when I found it to 35 now, I feel better about myself than I ever have.” She’s now back in Toronto after having lived on every continent and is teaching people how to naturally slow down facial aging.
The before and after photos on her Instagram certainly make a compelling case for her work. Foreheads appear more relaxed, sagging skin is lifted taut and line-streaked cheeks are ironed smooth. But it’s not just the pictures that prove it. In a 2018 study, researchers found that facial exercises performed for 30 minutes a day or every other day for 20 weeks improved the facial appearance of middle-aged women. The study also found that “those who perform such exercises may end up looking about three years younger,” says Dr. Murad Alam, the study’s lead author and vice-chair, and professor of dermatology at Northwestern University in Illinois.
Although Alam cautions that “more and larger studies may be needed to further clarify the role of facial exercises in reducing the appearance of aging,” it’s interesting to think about a different kind of anti-aging solution, one that doesn’t involve needles or lasers or a trip to Sephora.
Here’s how it works: “As we age, the skin becomes less elastic and the fat pads, which normally fill the space between the skin and the muscle below, shrink,” explains Alam. This combination of sagging skin and reduced facial fat leads to wrinkles. “We aren’t exactly sure how facial exercises can help with facial aging, but the current theory is that, by actively moving the muscles of our face in particular ways, we strengthen and increase the size of these muscles. As the muscles grow, they take the place of the fat that had shrunk and so the face looks fuller, and lines and wrinkles are less visible.”
There are actually 43 muscles in our face, yet most of us rarely pay them the kind of attention we extend to our abs, glutes or biceps. Some of them we unconsciously overuse, like the ones between our brows when we frown, those in our forehead when we raise our eyebrows and those around our eyes when we squint. So one part of face yoga, says Ha, is becoming aware of those contractions, releasing the tension and retraining the way you move your face.
Then there are the muscles we underuse, the lazy ones like those in our cheeks and neck. This idea is to strengthen these and bulk them up a bit, which as Alam explained, can help fill out the face. This is accomplished through resistance exercises. “Think about when you go to the gym and you’re doing squats to build up the booty, or lifting weights for your biceps and triceps,” says Ha. “It’s like taking your face to the gym.”
In the Northwestern study, these kinds of facial exercises were found to have the most impact on the centre of the face. “It makes sense the cheeks would be more improved because the cheek muscles are bigger and thicker to begin with (than the forehead muscles), so exercise results in a greater change in their size,” says Alam.
As of now, there haven’t been any studies on what exact moves yield the best results. You can find many facial exercise tutorials online, says Alam. Ha also regularly shares tips on her Instagram and hosts virtual workshops. However, she recommends consulting a certified coach like herself to tailor your routine to your needs. (She offers a one-on-one session for $139, where she gives clients a personalized program and a recording of the exercises. “It’s less than Botox,” as she points out.) She warns that without proper guidance “you can really affect the symmetry of your face and create issues you weren’t trying to,” such as more lines.
Whatever program you choose, what’s most important, says Alam, is setting aside time to do it regularly. Unlike Botox or fillers, facial exercises are far from a quick fix. “It does take time to grow the muscles,” says the doc. In the study he led, participants worked out their face for a full half-hour every day or every other day for 20 weeks. However, he does say that “once the facial appearance is improved, less frequent exercise may be enough to keep the benefit you have.” As for Ha, she recommends five to 10 minutes of daily exercises depending on the area you want to work on. With consistent practice, she says clients can expect to see results within two to four weeks.
But the benefits aren’t only skin deep, says Ha. On top of lifting, sculpting and smoothing, face yoga can also help relieve tension, jaw pain, headaches and migraines. “It’s also a form of self-care,” she says, noting that it can help people change their relationship to aging. “As we age, particularly as women, there’s this sensation of being out of control, losing your youth, becoming invisible,” she says. “But it’s not just about looking younger, it’s about looking brighter and better.”