I have a small, slightly upturned nose. My parents’ more shapely and defined noses skipped a generation. To combat this injustice, my grandmother instructed me to gently pull my nose while showering; this motion and the swirling steam would gradually elongate my stubby snout into an elegant point.
It was futile. Why my grandmother encouraged this schnozzle yanking is unclear because I inherited her nose, which remained unchanged. While I have embraced my nose, Instagram has decided, presumably from my photographs, that my face needs contouring, feeding me face yoga ads with alarming images of heavy jowls and droopy cheeks magically transformed into chiselled cheekbones and sharp jawlines.
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For the uninitiated, face yoga is a collection of massages and exercises that stimulate the facial and neck muscles, skin and lymphatic system to help smoothen lines and wrinkles, tighten muscles, boost circulation, improve lymphatic drainage and improve natural appearance. Its origins are uncertain, though I have read articles going back to the 1970s in the US; last year, a survey of 1,000 women in the US catapulted face yoga to the No.1 beauty practice, with the goal of reversing the effects of ageing.
I have noticed face yoga advertisements cropping up more frequently during the pandemic, possibly because video calls highlighted each flawed pixel and pore, sag and squint, frown and furrow. But do pouting, puffing and swiping really help with razor-sharp cheekbones, a rosy glow and smoother skin?
Years of nose pulling have made me cynical. The jury still seems to be out on it, though research does acknowledge face yoga’s potential effectiveness. A 2018 Northwestern University study on middle-aged women, for instance, suggested regular facial exercises could yield firmer skin and fuller cheeks. Doctors remain somewhat cautious, however, in the absence of extensive research.
The attraction is understandable. Face yoga is natural, cheap and cheerful, unlike expensive cosmetic treatments; it promises a younger appearance; and there are few downsides unless it’s done incorrectly. While I am still on the fence, having just started on a nightly 10-minute regimen, there are several experts and regular practitioners who shared their experiences with me on its benefits, drawbacks and effectiveness.
While traditional yoga has always had breathing techniques and exercises for the neck and face, face yoga is a more recent curation of techniques that include massages and exercises for the muscles, skin and lymphatic system. “Face yoga originated in India in breath work (pranayama) and face massage (Ayurvedic abhiranga). But the combination of facial tools such as Gua sha, or jade rollers emphasising the Chinese scraping massage, and the addition of acupressure points to assist those with graver issues like Bell’s palsy (sudden weakness in muscles on one side of the face), give it its mixed origin,” says Vibhuti Arora, face yoga expert and co-founder of House of Beauty India, a skincare brand.
House of Beauty India offers what is reportedly India’s first certified face yoga trainer course by a ministry of Ayush certified teacher (Arora). The Fitness and Sports Sciences Association (FSSA) offers a certification course and there are international ones, like the one by Fumiko Takatsu, creator of the Face Yoga method and author of six related books, or by popular English face yoga expert Danielle Collins.
Delhi-based Natascha Shah, 34, a breathwork coach and an inner child healer who works on childhood issues and trauma, discovered face yoga during a yoga class a few years ago. “I feel it helps tighten your face and delays the ageing process, especially the lines around the mouth and under the eyes,” she says. “It’s a slow but effective process. I noticed results when I did it regularly over four months.”
She expands on its usefulness for modern-day problems. “Excessive air-conditioning, pollution or phone usage leads to older, tired-looking skin or ‘tech chin’, a double chin because of looking down at the phone, and these exercises help with tighter face muscles and younger skin.”
Arora recommends a few exercises to combat specific issues, like the “C eye Buster” for tired eyes, the “Eye Hook” for under-eye skin improvement and a “Muscle relaxer” for skin texture enhancement. The “C eye Buster”, for instance, involves placing the index finger and thumb in a C-shape on the under-eye bone and eyebrow muscle, then lifting and raising your eyebrows, opening your eyes wide and moving the eyeballs side to side without creating frown lines.
Ritushri Dhankher, 45, a school assistant in Toronto, Canada, follows Arora’s techniques and online videos. “I have been doing face yoga in a focused way for a year with a few daily exercises,” she says over a video call. She spends 10 minutes a day, whenever she has time. “It has helped me, particularly in firming up my jawline and double chin,” she says, while acknowledging the role nutrition and the rest of her exercise routine would have played in this.
The massage techniques are soothing, so they have helped Dhankher with migraines too. “Beauty is never just the focus. For example, Bhramari, a breathing technique, helps you relax and is a super stress buster. With a number of breathing exercises, face yoga helps build concentration, improves sleep quality and eases restlessness,” says Arora. Shah echoes this: “I feel a lot more relaxed after doing it. Because we carry a lot of tension on our face, which extends to our mind.”
Medical professionals are not dismissive, attributing potential benefits like better circulation, but they are cautious in the absence of extensive research. “If you are doing facial yoga to help you tone or slim the face, then that’s a myth. There are various structures involved apart from your fat pads and muscles, like ligaments or bone structure. It is practically impossible to alter that with face yoga. But it is possible that the face might start looking good in terms of blood circulation and freshness,” says cosmetic dermatologist Soma Sarkar, founder of Dr Soma’s Aesthetic Clinic in Mumbai and Bengaluru.
We are genetically determined to age in a particular way, she adds, and facial yoga cannot combat bone ageing. “Facial yoga is good but not to be mistranslated as an ageing prevention or a face-weight reduction tool. Toning a particular area may help marginally but you have to lose weight overall.”
Nor can you dismiss the role of good genes, says Dhankher, admitting that she has inherited her family’s great skin. “It’s about maintenance for me.”
What everyone does agree on is that face yoga cannot work in isolation—a holistic health regime is necessary. “Face yoga will show incredible results when paired with the right kind of nutrient consumption for your body type, stress management and overall well-being,” says Arora.
A word of caution, though. “There’s no risk to doing facial yoga but you can develop more wrinkles by, for example, holding air in the mouth or even smiling,” says Dr Sarkar. Arora agrees that doing face yoga incorrectly can make things worse. “Pulling the skin in the wrong direction can cause sagging and premature ageing. Focusing on the correct technique for your face and skin type and learning it from a certified teacher is highly recommended,” she says. “Different exercises are recommended for different people. One of my exercises is the slapping piano, but anyone with acne must avoid this,” adds Arora.
When done correctly, there are no apparent downsides. It is not time-intensive, Arora says, suggesting a one-minute massage daily and an in-depth, 15-minute routine three times a week. “There isn’t a drastic change in one session or two weeks but the improvement you see keeps you motivated to be consistent.”
Reem Khokhar is a Delhi-based writer.