Who are the people and practices who influence your lens that you see tea through? Questions like these go far beyond one’s resume or scholastic achievements – and I think they’re much more interesting to explore.
I’ll share a little about my background and inspiration here, and I encourage you to ask these questions for yourself, too!
To start, I want to be clear that my path doesn’t include an indoctrinated lineage, and I don’t claim to represent any single tradition. My sense of rootedness, even as I moved across my home country many times over the years, comes from getting really clear with myself that I am following Tea. As such, my view over the years became very interdisciplinary, because I was always so interested in connections.
How I learned about tea
- Apprenticeship and Experiential Practice
My primary learning with tea has been through direct, personal, daily experience. I started working in the tea/coffee industry in 2003, and right from the very first day, I was tasting, journaling, talking about, sharing, and washing lots and lots of dishes of tea. It was therapeutic, in a way. Humbling and potent mindfulness training. Even this simple activity of noticing how day in, day out, year by year, the tea itself changes and the lives who mingle with tea also change, was planting seeds. The first company I worked for valued apprentice style learning, through experience at the cupping table and very up close to the leaf. We learned directly from the coffee and tea buyers, who would generously take what they learned at origin from their suppliers and share it personally with the small team of teachers and educators. We would then create classes and design experiences for staff to make connections for themselves in this seasonal cycle of tea and coffee life. Our training never felt goal oriented, it was all about human connection and personal expression.
This kind of intuitive, inwardly reflective, cyclic way of learning continued later when I was eventually able to travel to origin, to experience for myself and see how people of tea – tea makers and artisans – really connect with Tea. My origin visits and studies have been a helpful way to validate that tea is really about felt, lived in experience and not book learning.
2. Chado Study
While I was working for my first company, at some point I was able to finally take formal chanoyu lessons, which I had been drawn to early on but didn’t live near a school. (Chanoyu often translated as ‘Japanese tea ceremony’, although it literally means ‘Hot Water for Tea.’ There is no proper English term to describe the full meaning of the practice.) I studied for several years at the Urasenke Foundation in San Francisco, which made a tremendous and enduring impact on my tea viewpoint. The call to study chanoyu arose for me naturally, as in my own daily tea drinking, I was already uncovering space to explore and sit with larger questions about life and the magic that happens when people touch tea. Chanoyu was instrumental in beginning a healing process in the relationship between my often disconnected body, thinking brain, and neglected spirit. The roots of how I teach tea meditation / chado (‘Way of Tea’) largely come from my time with chanoyu study.
I do get a lot of questions about tea ceremony, as this seems to be the main way Westerners envision what tea study means. While I have studied tea ceremony in various forms (formally and informally), I do not teach tea ceremony, as I consider that to be stealing (steya, in Sanskrit and yoga) and potentially harmful unless one is an authorized teacher and dedicated lineage holder. I had the choice to pursue the path of lineage teaching, but I chose not to specifically because I was interested to keep exploring tea interconnectedness in other non-traditional ways.
3. Industry and Business Experience
I wouldn’t say I really learned tea from being in the industry of it, but I have learned much more about what it means to global economy, history, and culture from being a tea professional. I’ve held a number of education-focused company roles in my career with tea, and volunteered and worked with trade and non-profit organizations. And actually, I’ve never worked in sales, marketing or product development – only education – which means that even after nearly two decades, I’m still very much a newbie in those other areas (!), while education is ingrained in my bones and my true calling. Working in this way means I’ve had the great joy of being able to learn from other experienced tea people along the way – the 10 years I spent judging various tea competitions, for example, were amazing largely because I got to cup tea alongside such wise tasters from other cultures and countries. It challenged me to expand my feeling and depth about the other paths tea takes and to move away from polarities. I also spent several years in curriculum development (teaching, designing, writing) for certification programs.
Over the years, as I sat with the multidimensional industry experiences I had, it ultimately solidified for me that there is a yawning gap between what we teach and how we teach, especially in the West. While I personally spent my early years learning tea in an environment that was very experiential and embodied and personal – and this is the answer I would give when people asked me “How did you learn tea?” – all around me was a growing drive for “learning” tea only in this linear, scholastic sense that didn’t really emphasize the much greater importance daily practice and study and the years that this takes. It felt like no one wanted to spend time – REALLY spend time – with their tea. They just wanted answers. They wanted book recommendations and diplomas.
So, I felt called to create a new structure where we begin by asking better questions, so that the answer-seeking naturally leads to a more embodied path of study.
This is how Being Tea began.
Spiritual Teachers & Influences
I identify Vietnamese Thién Buddhist master Thich Nhah Hanh as my root teacher. This is a phrase that means the origin view you are deeply grounded from. Where “you” come from. My tea perspective is inspired by Buddhist teaching and philosophy, and specifically I was drawn to Thay’s tradition because of its roots in activism and engaged, socially involved Buddhism – and he happens to love and identify with tea, too. Engaged Buddhism is teachings that are actively practiced in daily life, including our most urgent times of need. I started studying Thay’s teachings (‘Thay’ is what students call him, which means ‘teacher’) around 2006. My first Buddhist teacher, whom I met when I lived in Boston, was from Tibetan tradition, and I first learned the dharma and meditation from him. And from that little first seed, I later discovered Thay and started following in the Plum Village tradition. In 2019, I was enormously grateful to make a pilgrimage to Thay’s own root temple, enjoying tea on the beautiful earth and reaffirming my understanding of what the connections means. My given dharma name in the Plum Village tradition, in Vietnamese, is Tâm An Trú – “Peaceful Refuge of the Heart.”
I first began practicing yoga around 2007. It was something indescribable to move and breathe at the same time, the same feelings I have while practicing chanoyu. But I more fully stepped into the path in 2018, when I took the plunge to take yoga teacher training. I finally found the right program that not only spoke to me personally, but would also provide rich, fertile exploration for my practice and work with tea. Over the last decade, I’ve become increasingly interested in the intersection of tea practice and mental health, and this program really complemented that study. Room to Breathe in Chicago IL is one of the first clinically integrated yoga studios in the country, which means yoga teachers and therapists collaborating together. Their lineage comes from the Viniyoga tradition, which emphasizes supportive yoga practices for bodies at all stages of life, but particularly suited for aging and differently abled bodies. Viniyoga is a gentle, reflective method.
Room to Breathe’s mission is to reduce the barriers between the healthcare world and the spiritual world of yoga, by creating a place where common language and goals are developed together. I completed a year-long YTT program with Room to Breathe to become a certified Psychologically-Sensitive and Trauma-Informed Yoga Teacher. This training, along with several years of personal pre-YTT study in trauma-informed teaching, added powerful connections and depth to my understanding as a teacher, most notably in the awareness of our responsibility as teachers and how we show up for people.
3. Indigenous Way
My interest in wanting to elevate the study of tea to be more focused on personal connection, embodiment, and daily practice comes from a simple, uncomplicated closeness with listening to source. To listen to Tea. It took me years to understand that and learn names for it, but in reflection, I can see that’s what was happening. For example, in the tearoom silently practicing chanoyu, we learned with our body, not through the analytical mind. We didn’t even take notes during lessons! We just felt it and reconnected, over and over and over again. And over the years, my favorite and most meaningful learning experiences have all been in this way. Later, I learned from one of my teachers – Yoli Maya Yeh – that this is really Indigenous Way we are speaking of. The way the ancestors passed knowledge. Yoli has an expansive view of what it means to be Indigenous, and her global understanding and training has helped me solidify that more in my own bones, too. I am still very much growing in my awareness of just what all this means for my tea practice, but it’s wonderful to have words for it.
Features of Indigenous Way of Learning include these five points: Indigenous knowledge is personal, orally transmitted, experiential, holistic, and narrative in form. Another deeply influential teacher for me in this area is author and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, also an Indigenous woman, who speaks to the extraordinarily nuanced and layered ways of how we are interconnected and how plants are persons, too. Through her work, I started to recognized Tea (capital ‘T’, as a proper name) as one of my best friends and closest relationships.
Other educators whose work informs me :
- Laura van Dernoot Lipsky (author and founder of the Trauma Stewardship Institute)
- Alex Shevrin Venet (author, trauma-informed educator, founder of Unconditional Learning)
- Dr. Lisa Miller (author and professor at Teachers College, Columbia University)
- Dr. Peter Levine (trauma researcher and founder of Somatic Experiencing International)
- Susanna Barkataki (yoga activist)
- Tias Little (yoga and interdisciplinary teacher, founder of Prajna Yoga)
- Holly Whitaker (author and sobriety activist)
Teachers I am honored to also call friends :
Elyse Shafarman (Alexander Technique, Reembody Method teacher).
Elyse deserves her own special acknowledgement as the first teacher who really introduced me to the meaning and power of intersectional teaching, when I was first her client for several years, healing from injury. I learned AT, somatics, yoga therapy, so much DEEP, truly holistic and finely studied movement practice from her. On a foundational level, this shaped my approach to how I learn and how I commit to that learning. Thank you, friend.
– jessica young chang (M-Div from Harvard Divinity School, chaplain in training, yoga teacher)
– Adam Grossi (artist, author, yoga and meditation teacher)
– Jenni Antonicic (yoga and meditation teacher)
– Chris Marshall (sobriety activist, founder of Sans Bar and Sans Bar Academy)
– Natalie McGreal (trauma informed bodyworker, yoga teacher, Somatic Experiencing Practitioner)
– Donna Fellman (former director of World Tea Academy and Specialty Tea Institute)