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A cup of calm during a Cha Dao ceremony

AT A TIME WHEN WE’RE ALL SEARCHING FOR A MODERN-DAY CALM, SOME TURN TO AN ANCIENT TRADITION

Scrolling through your Instagram feed, it sometimes feels as if the wellness industry has taken over the internet.

Açaí bowls! Creatine! CBD gummies! Gua sha! Poke! Peloton! Retinol!

Influencers post their fitness routines and tout the benefits of supplements, juices and healing elixirs.

In an age of fleeting foodie and wellness trends, a tea sommelier in Orient is getting back to basics by carrying on an ancient tea ceremony for those seeking solace and tranquility.

Mindfulness has been a part of Andrea Riesenfeld’s life for decades, from practicing qi gong to teaching zentangle, a form of meditative doodling.

“With tea, it’s the first time I have an anchor,” the Orient resident explains as she gently pours hot water over a bowl of tea leaves.

A ‘chaxi’ set along the Long Island Sound. (Credit: David Benthal)

What Riesenfeld is describing is Cha Dao, which translates to ‘the way of tea,’ a Chinese ritual based on the Daoist beliefs of gratitude, balance, harmony, vitality and fulfillment.

The sacred beverage — the second most-consumed worldwide after water — dates to ancient China, where legend tells of emperor Shen Nung sitting beneath a tree in 2737 B.C. According to the story, leaves from the Camellia sinensis tree blew into a pot of boiling drinking water and Shen Nung decided to try the accidental infusion, which eventually became known as tea.

In the eighth century, tea master Lu Yu was the first to write about tea, describing its powers in “Classic of Tea: Origins and Rituals”: “Tea tempers the spirits and harmonizes the mind, dispels lassitude and relieves fatigue, awakens thought and prevents drowsiness, lightens or refreshes the body, and clears the perceptive faculties.” 

In China, and in the Cha Dao practice, tea is much more than just a beverage and involves more than simply soaking leaves in hot water.

For Riesenfeld, the practice has helped cultivate stillness, clarity and healing in her life.

Her infatuation with tea began with a trip to a Japanese tea room in Paris several years ago. Soon after, she was steeping herself in the culture and knowledge, taking a sommelier course in London, visiting Japanese tea gardens in Uji, Japan, an oolong study tour in Taiwan and visiting tea factories to learn about the process.

“It’s been an interweaving of formal training and meditation,” Riesenfeld explained after a recent introductory Cha Dao session.

In early 2020, she and her husband opened a small tea shop in Greenport where they planned to sell single-origin teas from Asia, India and Africa, as well as host workshops and events related to tea.

When the pandemic struck, putting a pause on in-person events, the couple made the decision to close their shop. Virtually, Riesenfeld has been able to connect for sessions with ‘tea friends’ in Queens, Manhattan, California and even Germany.

“Especially with the pandemic, people really need a way to de-stress. There’s not that many easy ways to do it that don’t take years of practice or a certain skill level,” she said. The basics of Cha Dao are accessible and the ceremony can be emotional and cathartic.

A recent virtual session felt strikingly similar to getting acclimated with repetitive movements during a beginner yoga class.

Before we begin, Riesenfeld invites me to set a “chaxi,” or tea setting consisting of a teapot, bowl and cloth. Because this is for the northforker, we each place a seashell plucked from the shoreline on our table.

She covers the basics, demonstrating how to hold the bowl with purpose, raising it each time from your heart space to your lips, drinking it in and syncing the movements up with your breath.

‘Leaves in a Bowl’ is quite literally how the tea is brewed: no fancy equipment or skills required. “It’s how people have been brewing tea for centuries,” Riesenfeld explains.

She tells me there are no expectations; it’s supposed to be an intuitive, sensory experience that she describes as a dance between elements: wind on a mountainside where the tea was grown, rain, sun and moonlight that nourished the plant, water used to steep your cup, the clay from the earth that formed your bowl.

We fill our bowls with a heaping pile of Gushu Yunnan Red tea — more than we’ll need, she says, to evoke abundance.

We take grounding breaths and cultivate a connection with our heart. I’m invited to set an intention and then, we’re off brewing the first of three bowls of tea.

“Tea is what they call a spirit tonic. It opens the heart, it brightens the eyes. It was a medicine for thousands of years before people thought of it as a beverage.”

It’s no secret to those familiar with traditional Chinese medicine, but now a multitude of western medical studies have documented its health benefits as well.

A 2014 report by the National Institute of Health shows that tea can boost your immune system, reduce inflammation, improve your gut health and metabolism and even ward off chronic and neurodegenerative diseases including cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s Disease.

One amino acid in particular, L-theanine, is found only in green and black teas and some mushrooms and is credited with producing a calming effect on your body that can also keep you alert and focused.

Andrea Riesenfeld. (Credit: David Benthal)

Over the winter, Riesenfeld has been at work renovating a space in her 1800s Orient farmhouse where she plans to offer privately guided Cha Dao sessions, sourcing tea exclusively from Eastern Leaves, which operates a forest tea plantation in Yunnan.

She also looks outdoors for inspiration, using the ceremony as a way to commune directly with nature. Often, she’ll bring a thermos of hot water and a bowl of tea and set her “chaxi” on a rocky East Marion beach or serene Greenport dock.

“I might find a piece of driftwood and that becomes the tea table,” she says. “You’re connecting with nature in so many ways and it’s so healing.”

Amid a pandemic that has wreaked havoc on everything from mental health to the economy and reshaped all aspects of life, health and wellness have taken prominence. People are turning to proactive, preventative wellness practices rather than just visiting their doctor when they fall ill.

And while adding a cup of tea to your daily routine doesn’t replace the need for a doctor or Western medicine when you are sick, its benefits can help shore up your overall health.

Whether you’re drinking tea to wake up, wind down or enjoy with scones and clotted cream with friends in the afternoon, Riesenfeld sees it as an opportunity to slow down and be present, with or without a full Cha Dao ceremony.

She leaves me with a bit of wisdom she learned in Japan: Ichi-go ichi-e, which can be translated as “one encounter, one chance,” and is used to describe treasuring the “unrepeatable” nature of any moment.

“Letting go is important in any wellness practice and it’s actually one of the more difficult things to do,” Riesenfeld said.

It’s become a key tenet in her Cha Dao practice.

“It’ll be different every single time,” she said. I’ve done this hundreds and hundreds of times and it is different every time.” 


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