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New York's Holistic Estheticians Are Championing Natural Alternatives to Botox

Picture of Esme Benjamin
Wellness Editor
Updated: 27 February 2018
In New York, a city that’s always striving for self-improvement, there’s no shortage of skilled dermatologists able to immobilize foreheads and plumpen cheeks on demand. But what if these procedures don’t chime with your ethos to avoid harsh chemicals and suspect ingredients (botox, let’s not forget, is an abbreviation of Botulinum Toxin). Luckily for the wellness conscious crowd, holistic estheticians are achieving some very promising results with natural, gentle techniques.

Beauty is pain—every woman knows this to be true. But beauty can also be born from our pleasure, and it’s this route that Candice Forness, a makeup artist and facial massage specialist, has built her career around.

In search of a modality that would enhance that inside-out beauty for her clients, many of whom are in the public eye, and extremely anxious about aging, she discovered Ayurvedic Facelift—a technique created by the daughter of a Bollywood producer, that lifts and sculpts the face using massage, lymphatic drainage, craniosacral therapy, acupressure, Swedish massage and reiki. “We have a second to ourselves, we look amazing, we feel incredible and boom—unstoppable right? And the results are accumulative, because we’re retraining the face. I’m literally unwinding and lifting the muscles systematically from the forehead to the neck,” she says.

Marni Wandner, a health coach and long-time client of Forness’s, who has never felt tempted by botox, was struck by the results of Ayurvedic Facelift after the first session. “Halfway through, Candice showed me my face in a mirror and, literally, one side was brighter and noticeably less tired than the other,” she says. “The next day, I met up with someone who commented that I had a distinct ‘glow’, and even I could tell I looked more awake. The dark circles under my eyes were brightened.”

The effects created by facial massage—which drains lymph in order to reduce puffiness, and relaxes muscles to encourage circulation—evoke you at your best and brightest. The post-vacation ultra relaxed you, or the you that just had really great sex (another of Forness’s clients refers to her dreamy treatment results as “orgasm face”). It’s the kind of glow that comes from tenderness, not abrasive chemicals.

“Not only are these treatments really harsh and aggressive, but our attitudes are as well,” explains Britta Plug, a holistic esthetician who works out of a pretty crystal decorated space in SoHo, Manhattan. Her signature treatment, Facial Attunement, uses massage techniques like gua sha, in which a flat jade stone is used as a tool to loosen the muscles and bound-up fascia of the face. By gently working on the deeper anatomy, the look and feel of the skin on top is also improved.

“The language people use when they show up is like ‘my bad pores’, or ‘I have these wrinkles, ugh,’ and I’m like ‘well yeah, you’re a human woman, and you make facial expressions’,” she says. “We’re going to have expression lines because that’s our primary language, is showing emotions through expression. Babies understand that before they understand verbal language.”

Interestingly, studies have shown that botox can actually subdue our emotions. In one, participants were asked to imitate a series of facial expressions they saw in photographs, and the group who had been injected with botox showed less brain activity in the regions of the brain associated with emotion. In other words, when we aren’t physically able to express our emotions we simply feel them less intensely.

Like Ayurveda, the ancient system of Chinese medicine understands how the systems of the body are interlinked. Hormonal issues, gut imbalances, allergies, intolerances, poor circulation and many other factors can manifest in physical symptoms like breakouts, dryness, premature wrinkles and puffiness. In many ways, the face is a canvas for the body’s overall health.

During her regular acupuncture sessions, Dr. Sarah Emily Sajdak began to notice changes in her client’s skin, and realized the handful of face points she had targeted were having an effect. “Then I started sneaking more of them in, targeting the digestive points on the face, for example, and watching if it changed the color—lightening dark circles under the eyes or reducing hyper-pigmentation,” she explains. She called her new technique Beauty Acupuncture: “I like to loosen the neck muscles so the circulation is free to get to the face. It brings you more glow and gets rid of the redness. Also, when the neck muscles are looser the lymph can drain more easily and clear out any stagnation and blemishes.”

Fellow acupuncturist Samantha Story works on changing our facial movement patterns as opposed to preventing them the way botox does. She thinks of the face as a garden; if you’re not tiling the soil and making sure everything is moist you’re going to get cracks. By bringing blood to the surface of the skin and moving circulation, it becomes plumper, smoother and better equipped to heal. “There’s this saying in Chinese medicine—’a moving hinge never rusts’—and it’s the same thing with the body. Use it or lose it, you know?” she says. “We have a daily yoga practice, why don’t we have a daily facial massage practice?”

She, too, is championing a more self-accepting approach to beauty, one that isn’t quite so dramatic or harsh: “What are you doing to your spirit when you say you need an acid peel. We need a better word than ‘anti-aging.’ You can’t stop the aging process, but how do you want to age?”

Helping people improve their looks in an authentic way is the concept that underpins holistic skincare approaches. The beauty that emerges when we’re treating ourselves with love and respect is the kind that commands attention, because it’s rooted in an internal sense of our own worth, not just a fleeting external aesthetic.