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Sunday, September 13, 2009

White Tea for clear skin, and clear mind

If you read the previous article on puerh tea and its remarkable meditative qualities, you already know I have an extreme sensitivity to caffeine. That is why for many years I have had to avoid tea made from the Camellia sinensis plant. Nervous system soothing tisanes like African rooibos tea (red bush) have been a favorite, but though they provide remarkable antioxidants without giving the caffeine-sensitive the nervous jitters, they do not provide the mental clearing effect of caffeinated teas.

Meditation is about being physically calm and mentally alert. It is not about spacing out or floating off into a blurry bliss out. It's not like having a beer or a glass of wine, though many people try to use it that way. There are mental practices you can engage in that over time will give you the ability to calm your emotions, but that is not true meditation. Mental clarity must always be present in addition to the peaceful state if it is true meditation. It is in this form that meditation delivers its most profound effects, which are truly life transforming. I will write more on this in other articles, but want to clarify this crucial and often misunderstood point before proceeding to tout the benefits of a little caffeine in one's diet, no matter how caffeine-sensitive you are.

I am not a purist when it comes to having to do everything by dint of sheer effort. Why not get a little help from natural, legal substances if they actually help rather than becoming a diversion or a crutch? I tend to think of substances like marijuana as diversions. They imitate the "bliss out" experience so many falsely associate with spiritual experience, yet lead down a dead end that will never give you access to true spiritual freedom. And for some people these substances even become a crutch, one that people then need to face the world and get through the day. You can do anything in such a way that you develop a dependency. All I can do is to urge you to be aware of this and to moderate your enjoyment of the things you use accordingly, including caffeine.

And now, with no further prelude, here are the blessed attributes of white tea:

White tea is lower in caffeine than any other type of tea, and yet has the highest level of antioxidants. The tea is picked when it is just a bud, before it has developed all of its caffeine. It is also not cured, and so keeps more of its antioxidants all the way to your cup. This is where the skin clearing benefit is achieved, which I'm sure goes much deeper to be a general health tonic. The skin merely reveals what is going on inside.

Here is what a wikipedia article has to say about white tea:

"A study at Pace University in 2004 showed white tea had more anti-viral and anti-bacterial qualities than green tea. White tea contains higher catechin levels than green tea due to its lack of processing. Catechin concentration is greatest in fresh, unbroken and unfermented tea leaves. Furthermore, one study examining the composition of brewed green and white teas found that white tea contained more gallic acid and theobromine. As white tea is made out of young leaves and buds, it has more of amino acid theanine (providing relaxing and mood enhancing properties) than green and black teas, which are made from older leaves."

There is some debate around the internet about the amount of caffeine in white tea compared to other teas, but what I see is that the greatest number of sources say white tea has the least caffeine, while only wikipedia seems to be claiming it has the most. My experience has definitely been that it has the least. Here is a helpful chart of caffeine levels from About.com.

I find that the combination of theanine, antioxidants, and a touch of caffeine makes white tea the perfect health tonic. Served hot, it is a wonderful afternoon break and prelude to meditation. Served iced, it is a delicious accompaniment to many foods. I'm particularly loving it with tuna sandwiches, but that's because the iced white tea I make includes some dried fruit, and fruit is a great compliment to seafood.

I've also notice that my skin is absolutely glowing lately (and no, I most definitely am NOT pregnant). I've always had pretty nice skin, but this is just amazing. My pores have shrunk and my complexion is getting clearer every day. It became noticeable after just 3 days of starting my venture into white tea, and now at the one month mark there is a very marked difference. Another important part of my "great skin" habit is that I take one Apple Cider Vinegar capsule and one Flax seed oil softgel with breakfast each day. I've been doing that for about a year, and also noticed a big reduction in wrinkles and increase in the softness of my skin as a result. The white tea has added the effect of clearing up small blemishes and reducing the size of my pores to create the smooth look of one's twenties. (I'm in my early 40s.)

Things You Will Need

If you would like to add white tea to your diet, you can just buy teabags at the grocery store that are labeled "white tea," but that is going to get you a lower quality product that you may have a hard time considering enough of a treat to actually enjoy drinking it enough to get the significant effects I'm talking about. If you can financially swing it, I would encourage your investing in the following:

The Tea - White Tea Sampler from Adagio, 4 different white teas in 1.5 ounce tins. I discovered I liked the Silver Needle the best, which is no surprise, since Silver Needles is widely considered the best white tea. You don't need to get the sampler to find that out. The reason to get the sampler is to see if there is another white tea you will like enough to buy it instead, because Silver Needle is also the most expensive. Once I decided to get Silver Needle in larger quantities, I went with a different vendor because Adagio's teas aren't the very best you can get for the prices they charge. White tea is best the freshest it is, so a tea that has been picked the same year is ideal. Adagio doesn't even present the ages of its white teas, which tells you a lot. I went with Imperial Tea Court's 2009 Harvest Imperial Silver Needle, which unfortunately seems to be out of stock now. They do still have a 2009 White Peony, which is often considered the second best quality of white tea, and at less than half the price of Silver Needle.

For iced tea, try Adagio's flavored white tea sampler for $7 or mix and match your own 2 oz. tins for $2 each. I love the combination of 2 parts White Pear, to 1 part White Peach and 1 part White Blueberry. Truly AMAZINGLY delicious.

The Accessories - The most significant investment I made in starting up my white tea lifestyle was in getting a temperature controlled electric tea kettle. White tea has to be brewed at a lower temperature than boiling, and I just couldn't be bothered to try to get it right without a kettle like this. You can find them on the internet from $50-100 by just doing a search for "temperature controlled tea kettle" but I got mine from Adagio. Here is a great find at Amazon Temperature controlled tea kettle.

(You will notice that I am mentioning Adagio a lot. I must give the disclaimer that I have mixed feelings about this vendor due to how they handled my last order, which they eventually had to reimburse me for, but they do have a wide selection of useful things for a tea drinker. The biggest drawback that is likely to affect you is that they don't post tracking numbers on their website. The only way you can track your package directly is if you email them and ask for your tracking number. On their website it just shows where they think the package is now. So when at 9pm I got an email from them saying my packaged had been delivered, but I had no package in my possession, they were no help in finding where it was. I called UPS and was on the phone with them half an hour, trying to figure out what package I was even talking about as well as where it actually was. I may still do business with them, because I love their flavored teas for iced tea, but I will do so knowing the drawbacks and never buy anything high-priced from them again.)

The other accessory that may be worth your investment is a clear glass teapot. It is helpful to be able to gauge brewing time by the color of the tea. Different white tea vendors suggest different brewing times, and I find my sight is now the best true gauge, now that I've experimented a little with the exact teas I'm using, the quantities I use, and the brewing purpose (iced or hot). The other benefit of a glass teapot is that the flavor of white tea is so subtle that it can be affected by the pot you brew it in. Never make white tea in a teapot that you have been using to brew black tea, or even oolong or green tea, for that matter, unless it is a non-porous teapot. Glass is non-porous. Yixing is quite porous. Ceramic is moderately porous. Iron pots are always coated with an internal glaze, and I don't know what it is or whether it is porous, but if you have one, hopefully you know.

My glass teapot came with an internal strainer at the spout, so that the tea floats freely while brewing, then automatically gets strained as it is poured out of the pot. I got a small pot because I am usually brewing just for myself, and since you have to let white tea steep several minutes, you don't want a mostly empty pot cooling down your tea before it is ready for drinking. I generally make one cup at a time, for two steeps. Between the iced flavored white tea I often have with lunch, and the hot tea break mid-afternoon, I drink 2-3 cups of tea each day. Sometimes the afternoon break is with a different type of tea, and sometimes I skip the iced tea at lunch, but on average its 2-3 cups a day that leads to clear skin for me. The cost is about $1 per day.

The Preparation - Recommended steeping times vary from 2-7 minutes. I find that my first drinkable steep of most white teas come out best at around 3 minutes. I say first "drinkable" steep, because I always wash my tea leaves with the first steep of 30-45 seconds. This also washes off much of the caffeine, because caffeine is water soluble. Add time to each steep to get more of the flavor out of the leaves.

Brewing temperature is recommended at 170-180 degrees Fahrenheit (about 80 degrees Celsius). In the days before temperature controlled tea kettles, people would pour boiling water into cooling pitchers, let the temperature drop for a minute or two, then pour the water into the teapot. This is also the method used with Green Tea, and White Tea is even more delicate than green.

I hope you will give it a try. To your health!



Saturday, September 05, 2009

Tea as Meditation

I am not going to pretend to be a connoisseur of tea. There are many true experts out there, and I suggest you look to them for an "expert opinion." What I'd like to share with you is my experience of some quality teas I have recently discovered, coming from a spiritual point of view.

The first tea that opened my eyes to the meditative nature of tea drinking was pu-erh. A friend brought by a 12 year old sheng, meaning it had been stored green and allowed to age under the proper conditions for 12 years. He served it to me gongfu style, meaning he used a tiny yixing teapot and two 1-ounce cups, and made many quick steeps that each served just a few sips for each of us.

When I first smelled the tea it reminded me of earth. As I took the first sips, it was as if the Earth itself was entering me. I guess drinking old tea is about as close as you want to get to drinking liquefied dirt. Not that the tea was muddy at all. It was transparent and quite pure in that regard, with a deep reddish-brown color typical of a black tea. But the feeling of the tea was truly like taking the Earth into one's body. Pot after pot, as I looked out into my backyard garden and drank this tea, I felt more and more like I was camping somewhere, then like I lived in the woods, and then like I was a mere extension of nature myself, a walking tree.

I am not someone who can handle caffeine very well. My nervous system is hyper-sensitive. This serves me well when it comes to spiritual connectedness and healing work, but not when it comes to being able to enjoy nervous system stimulants. They put me over the edge into an anxiety that is utterly physical, like I need to jump out of my body, but I can't, so instead I just tremble with clinched muscles all over my body. Not exactly an afternoon treat.

Pu-erh is low in caffeine, lower than even green tea. Only white tea has less caffeine (and I will talk about white tea in a future article). Normally if I drink even green tea one morning I will have a hard time sleeping that night. It's not that the caffeine is still in my body that long, as caffeine is processed by the body in about 5 hours. It is more that the hyper-stimulation of my nervous system takes many hours to abate after the stimulant is no longer present. I had pu-erh around 1pm, and had no problem falling to sleep around 11pm that night. I share this aside for those of you who have avoided tea because of the caffeine.

There was a point when I was drinking the tea when it felt like I was hitting my caffeine limit, even with this low caffeine variety, and needed to stop or pass into jittery mode. My friend encouraged me to keep going. I rationalized that it was a Saturday, so what the heck if I was up all night. The fascinating thing is, two steeps later the experience came around full circle. Instead of further stimulating me, it actually felt like I was taking a nervous system tonic that was calming me, but in a way that was mentally crystal clear.

In meditation, what you are going for is to be fully relaxed and yet keenly alert. You are totally immersed in the bareness of what is, and at peace with it. A lot of people confuse spacing out or blissing out with meditation. I dare say, if there is any "out" involved, you're probably not meditating. Drinking the pu-erh brought me into a meditation that was so grounded in the Earth and yet as spacious as the sky. It was truly a phenomenal experience.

My friend left, taking his pu-erh with him, but a few days later I couldn't stop thinking about that tea experience. I have a daily meditation practice, but have struggled lately to keep it at three times a day. I always do my morning meditation and usually do my evening meditation, but have a hard time getting myself to break in the middle of the day for another meditation session. I work at home and set my own schedule, so there is no external reason I can't do it. I've just had a hard time getting myself to switch gears mid-day, even though when I do it refreshes and refocuses me so that I work better afterwards. I realized that if I had the tea I might take meditative tea breaks right after my "working lunch" and thereby get in my third meditation session each day. (As it turns out, even with the low caffeine, there is a degree of nervous system stimulation from the pu-erh, and I can only handle every other day. That's where the white tea comes in.)

Since my friend who introduced me to pu-erh was traveling, and I knew he got his from a shop near his home in Santa Cruz anyway, I had to hunt around online to find a good source for my own pu-erh setup. A key find was the Pu-erh Tea Community, which led me to Generation Tea, where I bought a 25 year old shou and sheng blend, and Imperial Tea, where I bought a 4 oz. yixing and gongfu tasting and aroma cups.

This is the second time I am mentioning the term "sheng," so let me explain more about that now. Basically, sheng pu-erh is green tea that has been allowed to age under the right conditions, while shou pu-erh is a fermented tea that has been manipulated by man to have the taste of a very old sheng, though it is actually quite young. Needless to say, shou is cheaper, but sheng is for the true connoisseur. The blend I got of the two was a compromise. I spent $28 per ounce and got a tea that tasted 25 years old and that carried the energetic quality of 25 years of aging, even though the quantity was "extended" by shou "filler."

From Wikipedia's Pu-erh page: "Pu-erh tea can be purchased as either raw/green (sheng) or ripened/cooked (shou), depending on processing method or aging. Sheng pu-erh can be roughly classified on the tea oxidation scale as a green tea, and the shou or aged-green variants as post-fermented tea.... Unlike other teas that should ideally be consumed shortly after production, pu-erh can be drunk immediately or aged for many years; pu-erh teas are often now classified by year and region of production much like wine vintages."

I have come to truly love my midday breaks with this tea. I use it as an entry point into meditation. I spend about 30 minutes enjoying multiple steeps of the tea, then meditate for 20 minutes. I start my meditation from a mental state that is already very close to what meditation produces, so that my 20 minutes deliver quite an effect.

Last week I got to share the tea with my Buddhist teacher. We have tea together rather frequently, but usually he is the one sharing tea with me. This time I got to introduce him to pu-erh, a tea he had never even heard of. First I checked that he was okay with having a Chinese tea, since he is Tibetan. He said that tea was universal and he had no problem with enjoying it. And enjoy it he did.

At the first sip he was visibly affected and his literal response was "oh! This is very good tea." He drank more and then added, "I can feel this is really doing something for my body. It is very cleansing." We drank for about an hour before we even spoke about anything else. We simply sat enjoying the tea and each other's presence. As we sat, it was as if our Buddha Nature expanded. I felt like I was at day 3 of a meditation retreat. We then began to converse, but the conversation took a very different form than the sorts of things we normally talk about. For the first time, I felt I was sitting with a dear friend, and not just a teacher. He has often described me as a friend and himself as my spiritual friend, but I never really accept that, and always refer to him as my teacher. Yet in that moment, I sat with a friend, and we spoke of his life as friends would.

I will end this introduction to the meditative qualities of pu-erh here, though really I could go on. I would invite you to go into a Chinese tea shop and experience the tea for yourself if you are near a Chinatown or an Imperial Tea Court (Berkeley/San Francisco). The investment to get started if you buy everything like I did would be about $100. I was willing to spend a little more than that because I had already had the tea served to me. It is a big leap to invest that much for your first cup. Though I suppose you could get away with just buying the tea and using it with your current teapot and teacups. Drinking it gongfu style is recommended though. That truly is a part of the meditative quality of the overall experience of the tea, and also changes how the tea tastes. Brewing a pot and pouring it into a 6-12 oz. cup is simply not the way to drink pu-erh.

You can watch this Gongfu cha dao How-to video to get a good introduction to the method, but you don't have to be a total purist to get the benefits of the method. Just note how he uses the aroma and tasting cups and uses a very small teapot and small teacups. He steeps the tea many times, and truly the most delicious pot of pu-erh to me is generally around the 4th or 5th steeping. You simply steep the tea longer each time, starting with about 10 seconds for the 1st steeping, which you pour off (it contains most of the caffeine, and also washes the leaves). The second steeping is generally around 30 seconds, on through the 6th, which is generally about 3 minutes. Again, this is just a guide and how I like it. You must experiment for yourself to find your "sweet spot" based on personal taste, the variety of pu-erh you purchase, and also how much tea leaf you are putting in the pot. You can read more about gongfu cha dao on Wikipedia. Enjoy.

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