Facial tension can be sneaky. You can hold a frown between your eyebrows or clenched in your jaw for hours — while concentrating hard during a study session or while battling stress or anxiety — which causes your facial muscles to feel tense, tight, and weary. And even when you do notice your facial tension, getting rid of it is no easy feat. When you're so used to holding these muscles tight and tense, relaxing them feels almost impossible. How do you even start?
"Everyone has some kind of tension," says face yoga instructor Koko Hayashi. "You just don't realize it because you've been doing it a long time, unless you get a lot of pain." Face yoga, Hayashi explains, is a way to help "wake up" the less active muscles in your face, like those around your eyes and cheekbones, and release tension in the overworked ones in your jaw, forehead, chin, and between your eyebrows. Relaxing those tense muscles and working the underused ones not only feels good, but can actually make your face appear fuller and more youthful, as one 2018 study found. Face yoga "can be a natural alternative to Botox or plastic surgery," Hayashi says.
Aesthetic benefits aside, face yoga may also help you relieve the stubborn tightness in your facial muscles. If facial tension in your forehead, eyebrows, and jaw is what's bothering you, try these seven exercises, stretches, and tips from Hayashi. They're designed to loosen these muscles and release the tension you didn't know you were holding around your eyes and mouth.
How to Relax Your Jaw Muscles
The jaw is a common source of facial tension, especially if you tend to clench or grind your teeth. Retaining tension in your masseter muscles (the big muscles at the corners of your jaw) can lead to related tightness around your temples, or temporalis muscles, as well as painful tension headaches.
One way to release some of this tension is to change the way you hold your tongue, otherwise known as your tongue posture, Hayashi says. Ideally, when you're at rest (not eating, drinking, or talking), you want your tongue to be pressed flat against the roof of your mouth — not just the tip against the roof of your mouth, not sitting low between your bottom teeth. To get the right position, try making an "ng" sound.
"When your tongue is down, you get downward tension," Hayashi explains. By keeping your tongue flat against the roof of your mouth (also known as "mewing"), you lift up the top portion of your jaw just slightly, creating a small gap between your upper and lower teeth. This position also forces you to activate different facial muscles: instead of overworking your masseter muscles (which are what cause clenching and soreness), this position forces you to use the muscles above your cheekbones, which Hayashi refers to as "sleeping" muscles because they don't typically get much use. "Tongue posture is so important to reducing the tension from this masseter muscle," she explains.
There are also a few stretches you can do to release jaw tension, especially if you notice it in the moment.
- Lip scrunch: With your lips closed, pull your mouth to one side of your face. You should feel a stretch in the opposite jaw. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat on the other side.
- Neck stretch: The muscles in your neck and jaw are closely related. Research shows neck pain is associated with jaw pain about 70 percent of the time, which means that stretching your neck can help to alleviate the ache in your jaw. For this neck stretch, reach your left hand over your head and place your fingertips just in front of your right ear. (If this position is uncomfortable for your arm, shift your left elbow so it's slightly in front of your head.) Place your right fingertips on your right shoulder to keep your posture in place. Then, with your left hand, gently tilt your head to the left, stopping when it's at about a 45-degree angle. If you can, tilt your head slightly to look up. Use your fingers to gently pull up the skin at your right temple, then stretch your tongue up like you're trying to touch your nose. Hold for 10 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
- Cheek vibration: To relax your masseter muscle and the muscles in your cheeks, take a deep breath, then relax your lips and blow out the air explosively through your mouth. Make the movement as big as possible, letting your lips and cheeks flap around and not trying to control or limit the movement.
How to Relax Your Eyebrow Muscles
Forehead tension typically involves the corrugator muscles, a pair of muscles under your eyebrows that control their movement. These are the muscles you activate when you push your eyebrows together, whether you're concentrating, exerting a lot of effort, confused, upset, or even crying. If you've been working hard up until bedtime, you might even notice these muscles feel tense when you're trying to sleep at night. Tension in these muscles is hard to let go of and can eventually cause vertical wrinkles in between your eyebrows.
If you struggle with relaxing your eyebrows and corrugator muscles, Hayashi has a few tips:
- Massage your forehead and brow: Hold the left side of your forehead with your left hand to keep it stationary and relaxed. Then, on the right side of your forehead, use the knuckles and fingertips of your right hand to massage in circles. Start between your eyebrows and move outwards, massaging firmly along your brow bone and forehead. "You want to reduce the tension from the inside out," Hayashi says, so make sure you're massaging the skin away from the middle of your forehead and toward your temple. Hayashi recommends doing this while applying facial cream or moisturizer so you don't tug or pinch your skin when you dig in. (Pro tip: add the massage to your morning or nighttime skincare routine.)
- Touch between your eyebrows: Sometimes just tapping the area with a finger can help you release tension between your eyebrows, Hayashi says. If you notice you're frowning or pinching your eyebrows during the day, for example, gently touch them to encourage the muscles to relax.
- Use face tape: Similarly, Hayashi finds that applying a bit of tape to the forehead can also help to keep these muscles relaxed. Hayashi recommends using tape specifically made for skin and placing a one-inch strip vertically in the middle of your forehead, just above your eyebrows. This is an especially good strategy if you tend to frown when you sleep (put the tape on before bed!) or if you're working or studying at home and want to avoid pinching your eyebrows while you concentrate.
How to Relax Your Forehead
If you lift your eyebrows or crinkle your forehead frequently, you may also hold some tension in your frontalis muscles, the muscles in your forehead above your brows. You may not realize it, but sometimes we even rely on the frontalis and corrugator muscles to open, close, or squint our eyes, which actually causes the muscles around our eyes to become weaker — something that already happens naturally when we age, Hayashi says. In other words, the frontalis and corrugator muscles are taking over some movements that your eye muscles should be in charge of. To relax and take some of the load off of your forehead, Hayashi recommends an exercise to activate your eye muscles.
- Relaxing your forehead muscles: Place your palms flat on your forehead. Your pinkies should be on your eyebrows, almost or just barely touching in the middle, with the rest of your fingers loosely interlocking and covering your forehead. Close your eyes, then slowly open them without moving your forehead or eyebrows at all. Open your eyes as wide as you can for a few seconds, then slowly lower your eyelids until you're squinting, without closing your eyes completely. Repeat for three total reps.
Wherever you have it, facial tension can be tricky to pick up on and can lead to pain and soreness if you don't address it. Identifying your own personal areas of tension is the first step, then you can move on to these exercises and stretches (Hayashi recommends doing them every day, if you can) to target those sore areas and help you relax your face. After all, you strengthen and stretch the rest of your muscles — why not do it for your face too? Of course, if you still have persistent pain or headaches from facial tension, be sure to speak with a doctor to identify the cause and discuss more specific treatment options.