Sporting a monochrome dress and a chunky Chanel necklace, Marina Kuchkina at first glance seems out of place in the wooden-floored studio at Pilates Academy in Jumeirah Lakes Towers, Dubai. She walks around the studio in bare feet, taping photos to a mirrored wall.
One features a series of time-lapse portraits of a European woman: in the first she has a healthy, attractive face, while the last depicts a ghost-like figure with sunken skin. Another image shows a young Asian child with her eyes squinted and mouth set in an expression more suited to someone far older. “Sometimes bad facial habits attach themselves to the skin, and you don’t even realise that you always have this expression. As you get older, it becomes very difficult to change,” says Kuchkina.
Originally from Russia, Kuchkina has lived in Dubai for 10 years and is in her seventh year of practising facial fitness, having studied the anatomy of the face and facial-fitness techniques around the world. This month, she started teaching her technique at Pilates Academy in Dubai, where clients can learn how to exercise their facial muscles, thereby improving blood circulation, toning their faces and reducing signs of ageing. Kuchkina explains that while people tend to blame the skin when they age, the skin is, in fact, our ally. Signs of age, she says, are the results of what is happening underneath our skin with our facial muscles, which we hardly exercise.
“During our lives, we do a lot of anti-face fitness,” she says, explaining that hours looking at a computer screen can damage the posture of our necks and, subsequently, the muscles in our faces. Immediately debunking any myths about facial fitness being more like a massage than a physical activity, she starts her classes by working out the spine, shoulders and neck, before moving on to the face.
Kuchkina’s approach targets areas such as the forehead, eyelids, cheeks, lips and jaw. She explains that wrinkles aren’t what make the face look older, but rather, it’s the minor changes that affect its proportions, such as the corners of the mouth, which tend to fold down with age.
One of her techniques involves putting a spoon handle between your lips. With your lips tucked inwards, you use your mouth to put pressure on the spoon and lift it, while focusing on pulling your lips as far back inside your mouth as you can. This, she says, will help the corners of your mouth sag less as you grow older.
Kuchkina highlights how many of the face’s muscles are linked to the brain. “We could feel a very sad emotion for one minute, but our brain will remember it for a month,” she says. The stress-related habit of grinding one’s teeth, she says, is a prime example of this, and can be relieved by relaxing the muscles through facial-fitness techniques.
Dubai-based Isidora Peric, 28, who founded The Fashion Network, one of the city’s first consultancies for emerging fashion designers, had a condition where she would grind her teeth at night. She started practising facial fitness and soon found that it cured the problem. She left the fashion industry, got certified in face yoga and founded The Fit Face – and has since worked with brands like Chanel and Boots Pharmacy.
Peric explains that face yoga, a form of facial fitness, helps her to deal with stress and anxiety. “Apart from lifting the skin and toning the face muscles, it really relaxes you,” she says. “It has this spiritual side to it, which is important for me because I didn’t want to dedicate my time to something that’s superficial and just about beauty.”
Nonetheless, vanity does play a role in facial fitness. Those who seek it out often do so with the precise purpose of fighting signs of ageing in their skin. “I’m 43 years old. The concept of beauty has been important to me since I was born,” Kuchkina says. “I had to find some alternative way for keeping my beauty in my hands.”
While the UAE is home to countless cosmetic surgery clinics, facial fitness offers an alternative for those looking to age gracefully, by maintaining healthy-looking skin using more natural, authentic remedies. As Peric points out: "Short-term, it lifts the skin, and long-term, you really invest in your face muscles to help you out once your skin starts bailing on you."
She and Kuchkina both emphasise that facial fitness is a non-invasive way of achieving the same results as a facelift. But that’s not to say that facial fitness isn’t effective for women who have already had fillers or Botox. “If someone has overdone it with Botox, and they really feel that they don’t look like themselves anymore and their whole expression is different, face yoga actually activates the muscles again. So, you still get the benefit of the Botox without looking frozen,” explains Peric.
Although their techniques are sometimes met with scepticism by would-be clients, both Kuchkina and Peric believe the rise of the contouring make-up trend could raise awareness of the field of facial fitness.
Kuchkina, who often watches make-up tutorials by beauty bloggers, says that they’re putting in a lot of extra work. “Sometimes I look at them and wish that they would come to me to work on their face; then they would need just minor make-up,” she says.
Peric says: “Face yoga sculpts your cheekbones naturally, so it minimises the amount of contouring and make-up that you have to do. Obviously, if you work on it starting from the muscles, then you’re not going to need to do as much when you’re putting on your make-up.”
Peric is currently gearing up for a face yoga masterclass that she'll be hosting early next year. One part of the programme is titled: Psychology of beauty – the benefits of mirror work. The concept, penned by American motivational author Louise Hay, involves voicing positive affirmations while looking at your face in the mirror. And according to Kuchkina, a haul of mirrors is the best investment for facial-fitness. "Buy mirrors and put them everywhere – in your bathroom, on the side table near your bed, in the kitchen and in your living room. We do a lot of anti-face fitness, and looking at your face constantly will help you control yourself," she says.
Though most of their clients are female, facial-fitness is equally beneficial for men, and in addition to teaching classes, Kuchkina and Peric make house calls, too. They can target the specific concerns of each client, much like personal trainers do. After a few months of regular sessions with an expert, clients will be equipped with the techniques to practise facial fitness themselves. But Peric points out the importance of starting out with a professional. “Nowadays anyone can post anything online. If you just do it from watching YouTube, you could do it wrong and end up damaging your face,” she says.
And while additional procedures like facial oil massages and even vacuum cupping massages may accompany these trainers’ regimens, a facial-fitness appointment is hardly akin to a trip to the spa.
“After you do the exercises,” says Peric, “parts of your face will hurt just as much as your body hurts after you go to the gym.”