Can yoga save face?

Drosu is a freelance writer

Anti-aging creams, peels, injections and lifts are among the costly steps many of us consider while dancing the tumultuous tango of aging. But what if we could take care of our faces the way we take care of our bodies, toning through exercise and relieving tension through meditation -- without injections or chemicals?

Annelise Hagen, a New York yoga instructor, turned that question into an experiment, developing a program of facial muscle isolations and testing them on her students in a series of classes. The benefits were immediate, she says.

"Tension is one of the major culprits in facial wrinkling. If you release tension, you'll see results," explains Hagen, who notes that students who were committed to the exercises and practiced saw better results faster. "Friends would say, 'Did you get work done?' "

She compiled her techniques in "The Yoga Face," the latest in a long line of attempts to popularize exercises for the face. Such exercises have been around for decades. Senta Maria Runge wrote an article for Vogue describing them in 1959. In the late '70s, Deborah Crowley introduced Facialbuilding, resistance training for the face to increase muscle without losing facial fat.

Hagen takes a more holistic approach, focusing not only on toning but also on relieving the tension that's so often expressed on the face. Dr. Ava Shamban, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at UCLA, agrees that furrowed brows and clenched jaws, often in response to stress, can age the face tremendously. Although she says there are more effective ways to combat aging, she notes that quieting your frown through yoga and meditation can be beneficial.

Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Dr. Andre Aboolian concurs -- to a point. "These exercises help with tightening up the muscles underneath," he says. "But does it prevent the skin from aging? Probably not, because the skin is independent to the muscle." Still, learning to control movement in the face, he adds, can slow down the effects of aging caused by repetitive habits.

"Muscles in the face have one purpose -- facial expression," says Aboolian. "When those muscles tighten, you get creases on the forehead, around the eyes and lips." Botox works by paralyzing those muscles so you can't use them. And if you can mentally relax your face and avoid bad facial habits, you can help prevent lines from appearing; it just takes more work.

Hagen demonstrates five of her favorite facial yoga exercises while Aboolian and Shamban weigh in on their effectiveness.

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Buddha Face: Close the eyes and concentrate on a point between the brows. Hagen says to imagine a small, iridescent disk and watch it expand, mentally smoothing out the muscles and relaxing the face. Start with one minute, and then work up to three.

Doctors' verdict: Worth trying. "This stuff can be beneficial because it teaches how to relax muscles -- which is what Botox does," says Aboolian.

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Surprise Me: This exercise brings awareness to the frontalis muscle in the forehead, Hagen says. Open your eyes wide as if surprised, but make sure you don't wrinkle the brow. Focus on a point in front of you and hold, up to 10 seconds. Release and repeat four times.

Doctors' verdict: Worth trying. Aboolian says: "The forehead muscle is probably the easiest to exercise so you can use this exercise to smooth out some wrinkles."

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Puppet Face: Hagen designed this exercise to counter marionette lines around the nose and mouth. Place two fingers above the lips and on either side of the nose. Push down gently to create resistance while simultaneously smiling. Work the muscles 20 times.

Doctors' verdict: Proceed with caution. Shamban calls the exercise an "interesting idea" but she worries that pushing down on the nasolabial folds might encourage more lines on the cheeks.

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Sphinx Smile: Start by lifting the corners of the mouth into a smile, keep eyes as neutral as possible. Repeat up to four times trying to memorize the feeling. The goal: to get the psychological benefits of smiling without the accompanying wrinkles around the eyes and mouth.

Doctors' verdict: Worth trying. "If you can smile without using your eyes, you're less likely to get crow's-feet," Aboolian says.

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Baby Bird: Tilt the head back and swallow while pressing the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth. Repeat three times while tilting to the left and then three times tilting to the right. The goal here: to firm the chin and neck -- and to prevent or minimize jowls.

Doctors' verdict: Skip it. Shamban and Aboolian explain that when the jowls begin to fall, there's very little you can do because they're fat, not muscle. Shamban adds that overexercise can lead to unattractive results, noting: "You could end up looking like a horse."

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