We often think of tea as a warm, cozy cup we can sip on while curled up with a good book. Visions of sitting with a lap blanket in front of a warm hearth with our cuppa can create instant feelings of relaxation. But tea has an even deeper sacredness. Specifically, the traditional Chinese tea ceremony creates intention behind every step of the tea process which is deeply sacred and traditional. There is an ancient wisdom and medicine in tea from its very first harvest until its final pour.
The ideal time to harvest your tea is that crisp, dewy time early in the morning. This is when the essential oils of the plant fill within its leaves, strengthening its medicinal properties for harvest. In order to preserve the energy of the plant, traditional Chinese tea harvesters would pick only three leaves per bush. Each tea leaf represents a most wholesome offering: “Take what you need, nothing more, nothing less.” After the farmers finish harvesting their tea for the day, they lay it out to dry and steam. The longer the tea dries before steaming, the greater the amount of caffeine.
There are many different kinds of teas. Teavana shops mimic traditional tea shops with walls filled with jars of single herbs or blends. However, the real teas (usually designated a color like white, green, black) all come from the same plant. The difference between all the teas is the processing time. This occurs when farmers harvest their tea for the day and lay it out to dry and steam. A new tea develops the longer the tea dries before steaming, which also increases the amount of caffeine. For example, white tea is steamed the soonest after drying; therefore, it has the lowest amount of caffeine. It is not strong tasting but contains high antioxidant properties. There is also a brown tea called Oolong tea. It has bitter notes and more caffeine than white or green tea. This tea is so highly valued that Oolong plants in China frequently have guards around them. One hundred monks pray over the plant for 100 days giving this tea a spiritually medicinal quality and should give you a good, glowing sweat. Black tea has the longest drying time before steaming, thus it has the highest caffeine content.
Green tea is steamed soon after drying and has a middle ground caffeine level. It also has the most medicinal properties and forms of antioxidants. Different types of green tea include Gunpowder green tea. Each leaf is infused with intention as it is hand-rolled so that upon steeping, it opens like a blooming flower. Pu Erh is another type of green tea which grows on a tree. Farmers must climb all the way to the top of the tree for their three leaves. After steaming, the leaves are formed into cake patties and left to ferment for literally years in quiet, dank places like caves or cellars. During this fermenting and curing time, the Pu Erh forms its own microbiome of magical and unique bacteria, deepening its medicinal value. Upon its final harvest, the fermented tea cake has to be broken open with a knife for steeping and enjoying. It better be a special occasion, though! People invest their life savings into Pu Erh as single cakes can go for more than $3000.
So once you pick your tea, what does a tea ceremony look like? The first step is to find your teapot or Yixing. There is some debate over whether you choose it or it chooses you, but definitely go with one that feels like it fits. A tea set usually includes a teapot, cups, and a tray with a drain tray placed over it. Sometimes tea “pets,” little clay figurines, accompany the set so you never have to drink tea alone. The pot should be made of Cha tao, a red clay, to retain memories and give flavor.
The first step is to wake up the tea by pouring hot water over your teapot and cups to “wake them up” and get those magical properties working. Don’t be afraid to spill! The drain tray comes in handy here so you can focus on getting those magical, ceremonial juices flowing. This also opens up the pores in the clay. The next is to set an intention. Sit with yourself, connect with your breath, and listen to what comes up. An intention can be something you want to manifest or even a feeling you want to feel. Use your imagination here, and if nothing else, find a short statement you can repeat to yourself such as, ‘I am enough.’
The next step of a tea ceremony is pouring. In the true tradition, the tea maker respectfully uses tongs to handle the teapot rather than her hands. This also helps protect the hands from a little extra heat! As the tea maker pours into cups, she stimulates her own lung meridian point by pressing the soft spot between the collarbone and the upper arm bone. This energizes the pour and can deepen even further with a Dragon Pour, which is a waterfall-type motion that fills the pour with intention. Tea is poured in a clockwise direction. The first pour is an offering to the farmers. A little secret, though: This is also the worst cup! The next few pours give the tea time to develop and unfold its true medicine.
The final step in a tea ceremony is drinking. Upon receiving his teacup, the drinker holds the warm cup at his heart, opening it to its healing properties and filling it with his own intention. With the first taste, he sips and bubbles tea in the front of his mouth like a wine connoisseur. This gives him time to absorb the flavors and observe how the tea makes him feel.
Given the subtle yet profound differences between each cup of tea, the drinker will notice an evolution of flavors and feels. Tea grown by the sea steeps salty and pungent, while brews infused with warm, welcoming intentions bring brightness to its beholders. Thus, each cup holds depths beyond what we can see or taste, stimulating our spirit and unlocking the vastness of our own inner world.
Emily Larson, Licensed Massage Therapist, Private Yoga Instructor, Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology & Human Performance, Co-Teacher of Anatomy for massage therapy students at the Bio Chi Institute, mother to Noah.