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Asanas for Acne: 8 Yoga Poses for Vibrant Skin
We all know that yoga can help with a host of ailments, from promoting weight loss to alleviating depression. But what about acne? Can you stretch your way to smooth, blemish-free skin?
Like most health conditions, acne has more than one cause. Gary Kraftsow, founder of the American Viniyoga Institute and author of Yoga for Wellness, says that while yoga can’t address all of acne’s causes, such as a genetic predisposition to breakouts, a targeted yoga practice can help with others by combating stress and promoting circulation to the face.
One of the main causes of acne is stress, says Kraftsow. Or, more specifically, an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system (the system that controls breathing, heart rate, digestion and sexual arousal). Stress — whether physical, emotional or even dietary — creates this imbalance by stimulating the sympathetic subsystem, often referred to as the “fight or flight” response. The sympathetic response makes your heart beat faster, floods the body with hormones (including adrenalin) and diverts blood away from the digestive system and the skin. This can trigger acne outbreaks.
But what if “stressed out” is your status quo? That’s where yoga comes in.
“There are many calming postures that encourage the parasympathetic or ‘rest and repose’ response instead,” says Liz Lark, a yoga teacher and co-author of Healing Yoga. Some poses Lark suggests include:
- Uttanasana (standing forward bend): Stand up straight with your hands on your hips. Exhale and bend forward from your hips, lengthening your torso as you move toward the floor. With your knees straight, bring your palms or fingertips to the floor, or cross your forearms and hold your elbows. Lengthen your torso with each inhalation and deepen the bend with each exhalation. Relax your head and neck. Hold for up to one minute, then bring your hands back onto your hips. Come up on an inhalation, keeping your torso long and straight.
- Janu Sirsasana (head-to-knee forward bend): Sit on the floor on a folded blanket with legs extended. Inhale, bending your right knee and drawing your heel back toward your groin. Rest your right foot against the inside of your left thigh. Lay your outer right leg on the floor, with your shin at a right angle to your left leg. Press your right hand against your inner right thigh and your left hand on the floor beside your hip. Exhale and turn your torso to the left, reaching to grasp your left foot in your right hand. Inhale and lengthen through the top of your head, twisting further to the left. Reach your left hand to the outside of your left foot, exhaling as you bend forward to touch your nose to your knee. Hold for up to one minute, then release on an exhalation. Repeat on the other side.
- Supta Padangusthasana (reclining big toe pose): Lie on the floor, legs extended. Exhale, bending your left knee and hugging your thigh to your stomach. Loop a strap around the arch of your left foot, holding the strap with both hands. Inhale and straighten your left knee, pressing your heel toward the ceiling. Move your hands up the strap until your elbows are fully extended, pressing your shoulder blades into the floor. Once your left leg is fully lengthened, extend through your big toe. Turn your left leg outward to the left from the hip joint, then exhale and swing it out to the left, holding it a few inches off the floor. Continue rotating your left leg, then inhale, bringing it back to vertical. Hold for up to one minute, then release on an exhalation. Repeat on the other side.
- Salamba Sarvangasana (supported shoulder stand): Lark also recommends the supported shoulder stand, which she calls the “mother of all postures” because it balances all the systems of the body. However, she cautions that you should learn this pose from an experienced yoga instructor to ensure that you don’t injure your neck or back.
In addition to using specific poses, you should also have a general yoga conditioning program that helps bring the body’s systems into balance,” says Larry Payne, Ph.D., co-author of Yoga for Dummies and Yoga RX.
Which yoga program you choose depends on your age. Payne recommends that people 45 and under try the Sun Salutation sequence, while he encourages those in midlife and beyond to use the Rejuvenation sequence. “These are great for creating balance, and when you have balance it reduces stress and improves conditions like acne,” Payne explains.
Lark also recommends making breathing exercises, meditation and relaxation part of your regular routine. “These are deeply important for inducing calm,” she says.
Go with the flow
If you’re feeling serene but your skin’s still a mess, poor circulation could be to blame.
“Skin vibrancy is related to circulation, so poor postural habits that inhibit blood flow to the skin can lead to acne,” says Kraftsow.
Moving into and out of yoga poses increases circulation throughout the body, but you can target the face with specific poses that promote blood flow to that area.
Kraftsow says that twists are especially good for increasing circulation to the face because they turn the head, neck and shoulders in relation to the upper back. Three that he recommends for a glowing complexion are:
- Bharadvajasana (Bharadvaja's twist): Sit on the floor with legs extended. Shift your weight to the right, then bend your knees and swing your legs to the left, placing your feet on the floor outside your left hip. Inhale and lift through the top of your head, then exhale, twisting your torso to the right. Tuck your left hand under your right knee, bringing your right hand to the floor behind you. Twist your head to look right, or counter-twist it to look left. Hold for up to one minute, lifting with each inhalation and deepening the twist with each exhalation. Release with an exhalation. Repeat on the other side.
- Ardha Matsyendrasana (half spinal twist): Sit on the floor with legs extended. Bend your knees, sliding your left foot under your right and laying the outside of the left leg on the floor. Step your right foot over your left leg, standing it on the floor outside your left hip, right knee pointed up at the ceiling. Inhale and lift through the top of your head, then exhale, twisting to the right. Press the right hand against the floor behind you, then position your left elbow on the outside of your right thigh near the knee, upper arm lifted in a wave. Twist your head to look right, or counter-twist it to look left. Hold for up to one minute, lifting with each inhalation and deepening the twist with each exhalation. Release with an exhalation. Repeat on the other side.
- Trikonasana (triangle pose): From a standing position, exhale and step your feet 3-4 feet apart. Raise your arms parallel to the floor and reach them out to the sides with your palms down. Turn your left foot in slightly and your right foot out to 90 degrees. Align your heel and turn your right thigh outward, centering the right knee with the right ankle. Exhale and extend your torso over your right leg, bending from the hip. Exhale and rotate your torso to the left, resting your right hand on the floor outside your right foot. Reach your left arm toward the ceiling, keeping your head in a neutral position or turning it to the left, to look at your left hand. Hold for up to one minute, then inhale and come back up to a standing position. Repeat on the other side.
"You can adapt most poses to benefit the skin by adding more movement in this area,” Kraftsow says, or simply ask your yoga instructor to include pose variations that twist the upper body.
Inversions are another way to increase blood flow to the face, says Payne. He recommends trying a gentle inversion, such as Viparita Karani, to start:
- Viparita Karani (legs up the wall pose): Place two thickly folded blankets or a bolster 5 to 6 inches away from a wall. Sit sideways on the right end of the support, with your right side against the wall. Exhale, swinging your legs up onto the wall and your shoulders and head onto the floor. Lift and release the base of your skull away from the back of your neck and soften your throat. Spread your arms out to your sides, elbows at 90-degree angles and palms up. Relax your stomach and face muscles. Hold for five to 15 minutes, then slide off the support and onto the floor. Move to a seated position on an exhalation.
Sneaky skin saboteurs
But what if you start a yoga practice and your acne gets worse?
“Then you’re doing the wrong practice,” says Payne. “When your symptoms get worse, that probably means it’s too vigorous.”
Kraftsow agrees, explaining that having too much heat in the body can impact digestion and irritate the skin. This can occur when your yoga practice is too challenging or if you’re going through your sequences too quickly.
“Your breath should be your gauge,” says Lark. “It should remain constant and smooth.” If it isn’t, try slowing down and focusing on relaxation rather than on getting in a cardio-worthy workout.
One last acne culprit? Your yoga mat! Even if your practice is perfect, laying your face on a dirty, sweaty mat is going to wreak havoc on your skin. Avoid pressing your face directly on your mat, always wash your hands and face after your workout (if you don't have time to shower) and disinfect your mat often.