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COMMENTARY

Tagert: Face yoga helps my patients face down stress

Yoga

The pandemic finally is starting to fade from view. But the legacy of stress and anxiety it left in its wake might linger for years to come.

The question, then, is how best to cope and move forward. For many people, the answer is mindfulness: a sense of grounding that allows them to focus on the present moment in every aspect and thereby reduce stress.

As a therapist, I know attaining this state of relaxed awareness takes effort and can be elusive. Yoga might offer a soothing and meaningful way to get there.

Some prefer Hatha; others prefer Ashtanga or Yin. But now, an increasing number of people tell me face yoga is what helps them achieve this sense of relaxation.

The simplicity of face yoga and its exercises helps individuals focus on engaging the senses, making it an effective grounding and calming tool.

Facial-centered yoga exercises include a range of poses, focused on everything from smoothing smile lines and tightening sagging cheeks, to combating the appearance of crow’s feet and other unsightly wrinkles. These asanas seek to strengthen and enlarge the more than two dozen individual muscles on either side of our faces.

Not only does this help us relax, but as those muscles grow and tone, they help firm the skin, making the shape of our faces appear fuller and rejuvenated. Much of it might be the benefit of releasing tension, similar to the effects of progressive body relaxation exercises.

According to a Northwestern Medicine study, a 30-minute daily or alternate-day facial exercise program sustained over 20 weeks improved the facial appearance of the participating group. The result was fuller cheeks and a more youthful appearance, overall. That’s good for our mental health, too.

Face yoga exercises essentially imitate chewing. Chewing, itself, has become a lost art in our modern world — one we need to regain if we wish to reclaim a range of health benefits it offers.

As James Nestor argues in his bestselling book “Breath: Science of a Lost Art,” centuries ago, societies like ours replaced traditional diets with soft, processed foods. People experienced a weakening of their jaws and now suffer a range of related facial problems — and breathing difficulties — as a result. That’s why Nestor advocates for more chewing in general, to strengthen our bones, build up our jaws and ultimately improve our breathing.

“The more we gnaw, the more stem cells release, the more bone density and growth we’ll trigger,” Nestor wrote. And “the younger we’ll look.”

Unsurprisingly, then, part of the power of face yoga lies precisely in the fact that many of its exercises simulate chewing. That’s worth keeping in mind, because experts recommend adhering to a half-hour regimen of face yoga every day to experience its greatest benefits.

Some simply might not have time for that, but there are myriad ways to introduce more chewing into our daily lives. From trying out yogic exercises during a conference call, to being more intentional when we eat, there is no shortage of options.

Chewing a stick of gum is another option, with its own calming and grounding effects. That’s one reason why I tend to include gum in the “coping toolbox” I recommend to many of my clients to help them control anxiety.

Incorporating face yoga into broader and more holistic relaxation practices also expands the repertoire of calming techniques at our disposal; and helps us strive for that inner peace visible in the face of an experienced yogi. This sense of peace within is critical, especially in the aftermath of COVID.

The pandemic taught us many lessons. One of them is the value of resilience and the importance of mental health. To protect it, we need to take time out of every day to center ourselves in the present moment and practice mindfulness. Calming techniques offer a simple way to keep anxiety at bay, making us feel and look more relaxed.

Tagert, MSW, LICSW, is a mental health service provider specializing in anxiety, depression, grief and loss, trauma and PTSD. She is based in Washington and serves clients from Northern Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. Contact her at: alyshatagertcounseling@gmail.com

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