In 2014, Meghan Markle told Birchbox, “I practice Nichola Joss’s facial yoga exercises—she basically has you sculpt your face from the inside out. I swear it works, as silly as you may feel. On the days I do it, my cheekbones and jawline are way more sculpted.” So we had to find out more about any practice that helps the Duchess of Sussex keep that sparkling glow.
We’ve long known the positive effects of yoga on the mind and body, but with 57 muscles in the face and neck alone, are we missing a trick by omitting our faces from our routine? More and more yoga studios up and down the country are offering face yoga sessions on their timetables. To get the lowdown, Byrdie tried a face-yoga class. Keep scrolling to see what we made of this Meghan Markle–approved practice.
What Is Face Yoga?
In essence, it’s exactly as the name would suggest—it inhabits all the contorting, stretching and relaxation of yoga, but for your face. The first “facial exercise” routine was reported on as far back as 1710. It was documented by Jeanne Sauval, a personal attendant to French courtesan Ninon de l’Enclos. Today, celebs like Meghan Markle and Gwyneth Paltrow are fans of the Botox-like effect it produces.
Whilst there are many more benefits than just anti-aging, the exercises do promote healthier-looking skin. The skin naturally sags over time when fatty pads under the skin begin to thin. As the pads age, their connections loosen and gravity draws them downward, leaving cheeks looking hollowed and areas prone to drooping.
The New York Times recently uncovered a Northwestern University study in which 27 women between the ages of 40 to 65 performed 30 minutes of facial exercises every day for eight weeks. After the initial eight weeks, the women performed the facial exercises three to four days a week for the remaining 12 weeks. The dermatologists noticed improvements in the fullness of the women’s cheeks and estimated that the women on average looked three years younger in the photographs taken at the end of the study.
To find out more before I headed to a facial exercising class, I talked to Melissa Murphy, a face yoga instructor and yoga teacher of 15 years. Murphy became interested in face yoga when her dentist told her she was grinding her teeth. She was surprised that as a yoga teacher, she was so tense. “I had been to a face yoga taster session run by Danielle Collins at the Yoga Show in London, 2009, and went on to set up my own class in 2014,” she says.
“My classes run once a month and contain an eclectic mix of practices and activities to help relax the face and calm the mind and body,” she adds. “There’s a blend of facial exercises, breathing practices, sound work, acupressure and simple massage techniques along with short meditations and affirmations.”
Murphy says facial exercise can impact our health and bodies. “The head and face contain most of our major sense organs—the eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin,” she explains. “They’re inextricably linked to the whole body. Position yourself in front of a mirror so you can see your face and neck. Put your lower jaw forward gently so the teeth show and lightly press the teeth upwards.
“Even with this light pressure, can you see the muscles in the neck tense up? The tension in the face transmits to the whole body, and most of the time, we do nothing about it. We exercise the torso and limbs and we might—if we do yoga—relax them too. But the face and head are sadly neglected, despite them being an area with a fascinating array of possibilities for movement and relaxation,” she says.
In one sense, I’m not only interested in face yoga for the anti-aging benefits. I hope to have the privilege of living a long life, and I think having some evidence of years of smiling and laughter (and of course, some frowning!) is not only inevitable but positive. However, I’m on board with improving the overall look and feel of the skin and adding a healthy glow.
Face yoga exercises work all the skin’s layers—the hypodermis (lower layer), dermis (middle layer) and the epidermis (upper layer). They stimulate collagen and elastin production and can help the muscles in the face and neck look firmer and tighter. Eyebrows and eyelids can look lifted, lines are softened and skin around the neck and jawline can look tighter.
Like regular yoga, most classes also focus on well-being and relaxation techniques for the mind, body, and soul. Face yoga is said to be great for teeth grinders and those with tension headaches (both of which describe me). The massage aspect removes toxins and can reduce dark circles as a result of the increased circulation and lymph flow.
What to Expect From a Class
“While the format is similar each time—an introduction, a standing warm-up, seated facial exercises and practices ending with meditation—each session is different,” Murphy says. “There might be more emphasis on massage/facial exploration one month, sound work the next and expressions another.
“Yoga is awash with practices for neglected areas of the body, and face yoga classes do the same. As an example, the tongue is connected developmentally to the back of the neck, so when we relax the tongue (it can be astounding how tense this muscle can hold) we help relax the neck. I love to help people discover the landscape and contours of the face through the exercises. I find more awareness leads to more appreciation.”
Before the class, I had heard of one facial exercise (called “kissing the ceiling”) that was said to help with sagging jowls, in which you look up and purse your lips to the sky. You can really feel the stretch under your chin. Whilst pulling faces at myself in the mirror was a start, I was looking forward to being led through the exercises in a group setting.
To start, we massaged and contoured the face with exercises led by Murphy. It’s certainly different than your regular yoga class, but it still has that calming, relaxing feel you’d expect. One facial exercise is called “the heart-shaped box,” in which you press the forefinger to the top of the forehead with the middle finger pushing the brow toward the eyes, down and out. You repeat this 50 times. It’s said to help the frown lines in between the eyebrows.
Another called “the snarl” sees you hold your thumbs on the sides of your nose and mouth. You gently press the brow muscles with the index fingers and then use the muscles of the upper lip and around the nose to lift the upper lip 100 times, holding for 50 seconds. Whilst these seem simple enough, it’s great to have someone leading you through the steps. Murphy notes there’s a real skill to doing the exercises with gentle control and coordination in order to really work the muscles.
After the hourlong class, I felt as if I had gotten an Indian head massage for the face. I didn’t realize how tense some areas were until I moved them in ways I wouldn’t usually. As with everything, I think consistency is key to reap the benefits. That’s where committing to a class is helpful, as I could see myself forgetting the moves or missing the exercises when left to my own devices, even with the best of intentions. Ending the class with meditation was the icing on the cake.
We loved the positive atmosphere and well-being aspect of the class just as much as the tension-reliving exercises themselves. Melissa Murphy’s face yoga classes promote a sense of self-acceptance: “Meditation and affirmations are a big part of that. Books on facial exercises state that beauty is a state of mind. Self-acceptance gives us an inner beauty and serenity that radiates, no matter how old we are or what we look like.” Now that we can get on board with.
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