Having a cup of tea may not solve all mental health conundrums but it does present an opportunity to pause, pull-back and ponder them. It creates space, momentarily, within our minds and gently slows down the busyness of our days. A tea break is as good as any yoga pose, inviting the Buddha within to exude calm. I spoke with tea aficionado Angelina Yannuccelli from Tea&Sympathy, about her love, knowledge and the sacred art of tea ceremony. I have always been inspired by Angelina’s commitment to tea especially in the hectic, coffee-crazed, workplace environments we have shared – her warm and welcoming ‘tea anyone?’ is a game changer . With the qualities of a monk and technique of a pro, boiling the kettle with Angelina is always an enlightening experience. When Angelina isn’t travelling to tea growing communities sourcing the best quality tea our mother earth has to offer, she is introducing the concept of tea and mindfulness to community mental health organisations and the broader public. So go on, pop the kettle on and experience how tea appreciation brings delight and a moment’s peace.
BFA: Through your business, Tea&Sympathy, what kind of tea do you sell and why did you choose these teas?
T&S: My specialisation in teas and the teas Tea&Sympathy showcases developed as my knowledge of teas developed. I realised there was a real gap in what was available to us here in Australia, and it did not match the calibre of other premium natural products that was now available in coffee, wine, chocolate, cheese and other products that had previously suffered from mass production.
The gap I saw was in very high quality craft teas made by small gardens in Taiwan and China. The types of teas that serious tea drinkers in Asia would approve of!
While Australians had been reacquainted with loose-leaf tea in the 1990s (mainly by companies like T2), overall the quality of the tea was low and flavoured teas dominated. I like to showcase the diversity and complexity in flavours that can come from single garden unblended teas. What can be produced by the earth, and the experienced tea maker together does not require added flavouring!
I have also discovered that there are tea growing communities making beautiful teas in places like Northern Thailand and Northern Vietnam. These areas are inhabited by ethnic Chinese people who either arrived centuries ago as nomadic tribes, bringing tea plants with them (in the case of Northern Vietnam) or as refugees of the Cultural Revolution (as in Northern Thailand). It is interesting how their tea cultures have survived and thrived with them.
Where possible I source directly from farms, or from suppliers who have a reputation internationally for ethical sourcing. Most of the teas come from small family run tea gardens. Although there are a number of certified organic teas in the range, I look for old growth and wild grown teas. These are typically growing organically and do not require fertilisers and pesticides. I place greater importance on these things than looking for Fair Trade or Certified Organic status – many small farmers are producing amazing teas and doing the right things but either can’t afford the regulatory burden and cost of buying this status, or their markets are domestic and they don’t need to bother.
That is the beauty of being a small boutique seller – I am able to individually hand select every tea in the range.
BFA: What are the benefits of drinking tea for our mental health and wellbeing?
T&S: Last year a community mental health organisation approached me to conduct a tea and wellbeing course for their clients and staff. They didn’t want a course about the health benefits of tea as such. They understood what tea has to offer in the ritual it can bring to daily life and the ways it can bring a sense of connectedness and community. I ran a course over four weeks with three other tea people who specialised in tea and mindfulness, gong fu tea ceremony, and Japanese tea ceremony.
I love to introduce the concept of
tea and mindfulness to people,
as it is a way to truly bring about feelings of peace and wellbeing to our daily routine.
These days as we are becoming familiar with the benefits of mindfulness and mediation, we are aware of the craziness, pressures, and speed of our lives. Sometimes mindfulness and meditation can become just another task that needs to get done!
The concept of tea and mindfulness is to build a ritual around something you truly enjoy. It can be as simple or as elaborate as you like or as time allows. You can do it in the kitchen or your desk at work, in a hotel room or anywhere you find yourself. The beauty of using full leaf tea is that it takes a little more time and attention to prepare than simply throwing a teabag into hot water. (Read the T&S tutorial on How to prepare your tea.) I think it is telling that the teabag was built for speed and convenience in our modern production-driven economy and workplaces. I think we should all rebel against that and take some time to honour a well-crafted product!
When I teach a tea and mindfulness practice, we establish a ritual that engages all the senses. There is the sound of the boiling water, the formation of water as it is poured to observe, the warmth of the pot to feel in your hands, the aroma of the dry leaf to smell as it is placed in the warmed pot, the steam to take in through breath, and of course the flavour of the tea to enjoy.
In Asia, it is common also to observe the ‘Cha Chi’. This is the energetic quality of the tea – it is about the feeling that the tea brings to your mind and body as you drink it. It is thought that the closer the tea’s production to nature – using old growth tea trees, and hand processing –gives a stronger Cha Chi. Of course, tea is also about togetherness. Making tea for someone and sharing tea with someone is also wonderful for our mental health and wellbeing.
BFA: Tell us about the ritual of tea drinking and its every day value. Do you explore tea ceremonies in your workshop?
T&S: There are records of tea being used for medicinal purposes in China dating back about 3000 years. But actually it was popularised as a beverage by the Buddhists, who found that it aided their daily meditation practice. It was in the Buddhist monasteries that tea became ritualised – the monasteries would have a tea room, a tea bell, times for drinking tea. In the practice of humility, the more senior a monk became they would perform tasks such as sweeping the floor, and preparing the tea.
In China, gong fu tea ceremony is common. Gong fu means attaining mastery through practice. In line with Buddhist philosophy, the mastery in the preparation of the tea becomes almost instinctive rather than through use of exact measurements and timing.
It was Buddhism that took tea to Japan (via Korea), where the Japanese tea ceremony originated. The ceremony is essentially a meditation ritual. There is a school of Samurai tea ceremony in Japan. The Samurai warriors lived a life of violence where death could come at any time. When they returned from fighting they would bathe in the tea ceremony as a way to restore themselves physically and mentally.
Perhaps it is the simplicity of tea and its connectedness to nature that gives it such significance
in Buddhism and ceremony.
We also know that many countries around the world have developed their own tea ceremonies and rituals as a way to bring people and communities together. In many countries tea is a ritual greeting to homes or places of business. Many negotiations and community discussions are initiated with tea.
BFA: Why did you call your business Tea and Sympathy?
T&S: I wanted a name that would invoke the feeling of comfort that tea can bring. It is also the name of a tea store and restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village.
BFA: How can people start to integrate tea in their life if they want to cut down on caffeine?
T&S: Tea is a great alternative to coffee or other caffeinated drinks, and even a great alternative to drinking alcohol.
Tea does contain caffeine. That is, tea from the camellia sinensis plant – such as white, green, oolong and black teas. There are many herbal ‘teas’ or infusions that do not contain caffeine.
However, there is a lower amount of caffeine contained in a cup of tea than a cup of coffee. Tea also has another secret weapon, an element called L-theanine. L-Theanine moderates the release of caffeine into the body and counters the effect of the caffeine. L-theanine is what gives tea its reputation as a drink that calms. In fact, it is the combination of caffeine and L-theanine in tea that likely made it popular with Buddhist monks and nuns to aid in meditation – as it brings about a calm alertness that lasts over a period of time. This info post on Tea, Caffeine and Zen provides more details.
I find a good quality tea can easily replace a glass of wine at dinner. We just need more restaurants to invest in good tea!
Looking for more soul in your tea and more tea for your soul? Visit the Tea&Sympathy website and place your order now!
(Feature image and final image by Cassie Kay Photography)