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About face

To fight wrinkles, these women opt for exercises over cosmetic fixes

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By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / March 24, 2011

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The scene in the Brookline yoga studio was serene but intense, as Lavinia Borcau, a rock climbing champion in her native Romania, led her disciples through a series of moves, reminding them to isolate a muscle, hold a position, breathe.

“It’s tiring,’’ one of the students said after Borcau gave the group permission to release.

No one ever said facial exercise would be easy.

“Lower Cheeks: The Secret With the Mouth Corners,’’ was the second class in a series that Borcau has named “From My Neck Up,’’ but that might more accurately be called: “It’s this or Botox,’’ or “Anything — no matter how ridiculous — but a face lift.’’

As Borcau demonstrated the moves on Monday, Noreen Brilliant, a fitness instructor more accustomed to working thighs than crow’s feet, read directions out loud. “Press teeth and lips tightly together, and press cheek muscles to your teeth,’’ she said. “Use your upper lip to smile as far upward toward your earlobes as you can.’’

The students, grinning strangely as instructed, were all women in their “ishes,’’ as in 50-ish, or 60-ish. All harbor the hope that saggy jaws, vertical lip lines, and under-eye pouches can be eliminated with old-fashioned exercise.

“Pretend to yawn and open mouth,’’ Brilliant called out as Borcau helped students get in position. “Keep teeth in this position and move upper lip slowly downward while stretching it outward.’’

“It makes sense,’’ Margaret Watkins, of Needham, said after class. “You see a lot of older women whose bodies are taut because they exercise, so why not your face? It’s intuitive.’’

At $80 for five classes, it’s certainly less expensive than a brow lift. But does it work?

Boston plastic surgeon Leonard Miller isn’t so sure. While pumping iron with your face could indeed plump up muscles, he said: “You might get buildup in the lower cheek and along that jaw line that might not be cosmetically pleasing. It’s not an accepted mechanism to create aesthetic improvement in the face.’’

In other words, the danger is not that it doesn’t work, but that it does.

Borcau, who is known in Brookline and beyond for her facials and brow waxes, recommends exercising the face five days a week, and says the routines can be done while driving or at work. But such multitasking comes with an appearance-related downside that has nothing to do with building muscles, and everything to do with looking out of one’s mind.

As for Borcau, she started facial exercises in September, and has been doing them with a dedication one would expect from an elite athlete. On Monday her face looked, if not more muscular, then plumper than it had six months earlier, almost as if she’d gained weight, which she hadn’t.

What she has gained, she said, is her former jaw line. “I have definition!’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com.