The subtle art of Tea, Tea Medicine & Wu Wei


“Those who are good in ancient times are subtle and profound, but they are incomprehensible”

The Tao Te Ching, credited to the 6th-century BC sage Lao Tzu says this much. We can apply this wisdom in regard to Tea Medicine practice in that it is less about knowledge or comprehending a way of medicine but more about intuitive embodiment of a practice. Practice remains subtle, intuitive and beyond merely comprehensive structural theory.

That isn’t to say there is not a foundation in knowledge or Classical theory but that is more the application and experience of practice than knowing the theoretical.

This is the same for most things, we can be classically trained in music theory and composition but this does not guarantee that we will be a good violinist or pianist!

In Western approaches, as indeed historically in systems such as Sung Confucianism, we find that there is this over reliance on certification, examination, and accreditation to provide proof that you have the knowledge or skills to apply to practice. However unless you apply your knowledge is just merely another piece of paper or title after your name.

Equally it goes further than applying it, in more classical practice of music , medicine or any similar art it is about “becoming” it.

Without seemingly quoting Heidegger or Merleau Ponty upon what is to “be” something or “become” something, it is simply down to applying the intuitive alongside the learnt or known.

This may appear something philosophical or abstract in regard to Tea and tea culture or Tea Medicine, however it is about the principle that, like any art form, it embodies both knowing and feeling, in other words it can be seen to embrace the Yang of action or intuition, and the Yin of non-action, or theory.

When we practice the art of Tea drinking or the art of Tea Medicine we can strive to embrace both the Yang and the Yin of doing and knowing, this is the Wu Wei of Tea!!

Wu Wei – Doing Nothing 無爲 -The School of Life Articles | Formally The Book  of Life

Tea Interview with a Taoist Master

Master Gu is a 15th generation Taoist master of the Wudang Sanfeng Pai lineage and is the spiritual teacher of the Wudang Taoist Wellness Academy.

Live Long, Live Well. An Online Academy for your mind, body and spirit

I had the opportunity to interview him upon Tea and Taoist culture and it is a pleasure to share his responses with everyone. I found it both touching and reassuring that he was able to share this philosophy of Tea that is intimate to both spiritual, social and physical cultivation and wellness.

Q. Master Gu, what is your earliest experience of tea drinking?

A. My earliest experience of tea dates back to my childhood, as a small boy, I jokingly imitated adults drinking tea to make great decision. I started to grow interest in tea drinking actually after my graduation from university and from working in the Wudangshan area.

Q. Tell me more about the tea on Wudangshan…..

A.The tea grown on Wudang mountains, how is it special in the whole tea family? The tea here we generally speaking call it Wudang Daocha (“Taoist tea”) as it was very early planted and grown by the Taoist people staying in the mountains.

Q.So would you say that Tea and Taoism have a strong connection?

A.Tea drinking is important to Taoist culture: firstly, the Taoists in the past very much use it as a remedy to cure some wounds or illnesses. Then they found it drinkable and keep sustained benefit for the health. More importantly, drinking tea can sends one to meditative manner, good for cultivation

Q. How important, therefore, is the practice of Tea in regard to “living long and living well”?

A.So Tea is important to living long and living well!!

Q. Do you have any special or favourite place to drink Tea?

A.My favourite place to have Tea is in WTWA tea pavilion which is under construction now

Q…..and do you change your Tea drinking habits with the seasons?

A.I change my tea drinking habits from time to time: in the Spring and Summer, I like drinking green tea; in the Autumn I prefer red tea; in Winter black tea. I have some other teas to alternative on a daily basis, for example; morning ginger tea with bit of salt sometimes, Huangjing tea or other herbal tea.
Well, personally, I also like drinking plain water, regarding it also a kind of tea!!

Q I want to thank you Master Gu for sharing your thoughts and responses, however is there any final advice you would like to share today?

A. Finally, there is one last important to drink – your own water..saliva!!

Wudang Taoist Wellness Academy is located in the heart of China’s Wudang Mountains a traditional home and spiritual location for Taoism.

Master Gu is the director of Wudang Taoist Culture Centre (WTCC) and headmaster of the Wudang Taoist Wellness Academy (WTWA). Among the martial artists in the Wudangshan area, he is one of the few who was born here, and perhaps the only one who can teach in fluent English. While most institutions focus primarily on movement teaching, Master Gu has been directing his academy to follow the Taoist Way: not only movement but also internal alchemy and cultural exploration.

His shīfu (fatherly teacher) is Grandmaster Zhong Qingwei or Zhong Yunlong.

Master Gu aims to spread the wisdom and wellness practices of Taoism, and to help all who wish to learn and explore deeper into the Taoist culture. He teaches primarily in the Wudang Mountains, but also teaches abroad when invited and now and more recently online courses upon Taoism, meditation, culture, Taiji and Qigong at the Wudang Taoist Wellness Academy.

Taoist Wellness, Tea & Medicine

The influence of Taoist culture on  poems about tea in Tang dynasty started from Li Bai (Wen & Guan 2007)

“This tea is pure in fragrance and mellow in taste, different from other teas. Thus, it restores youth and reverses decay, enhancing longevity. While in Jinling, I saw my nephew Zhongfu who showed me several tens of tea leaves, all curled and layered, shaped like hands, and bearing the name Immortal’s Palm tea.”

Around this time Taoist external alchemical practices involving pill-taking also infiltrated the creation of the poems about tea. The culture and practice of taking-in medicine for longevity is perhaps one of the first records where we start to see alchemy, medicine and tea practice coalesce into something definable as Tea Medicine.

Ideas around tea alongside observation of its effects on both well being and the micro-cosmic Taoist body perhaps allowed this emergence of tea practice within health as well as spiritual domains.

Taoist culture provides fertile cultural resources for Tea Medicine practice and its with this that I am please to have been able to affiliate with Master Gu in Wudang around the application of Taoist practices to live long and live well that are directly applicable and complimentary to Tea Medicine.

Master Gu’s Taoist Wellness Academy provides opportunity to explore and develop practices from a rich Taoist culture that can support both our Tea practice and Tea Medicine practice.

Tea Medicine crosses over both external and internal practices of Taoist cultivation of health and well being. We can apply tea as both external medicine to balance our health alongside applying it as internal medicine utilizing approaches that is encapsulated in Taoist Nei Jing such as Qigong or meditative forms and five element theory.

WANG YF, NIU YF. Study on Taoist culture and the innovation of tea culture of Laoshan [J]. Journal of Qingdao University of Science and Technology (Social Sciences). 2011;2.
WEN M, GUAN J. Taoist Culture and Poems about Tea in Tang Dynasty. Journal of Zhejiang Shuren University. 2007;4.


Tea Medicine as Classical Chinese Medicine

There is a well known saying:

“Drink water to quench thirst, drink alcohol to remove anguish and anxiety, and drink tea to recover from fatigue and refresh mind” 

This would suggest that tea holds the qualities of other tonic herbs such as ginseng or dang sheng. However when we look at materia medica from the classics of Chinese Medicine, tea does not feature until middle and late period texts. The Shennong Bencaojing  holds no reference to any Camellia species.

Does this mean that Tea Medicine is a later development of practice?

The answer to this question is a resounding “NO” , there are many texts and practices that have have been cultivated or edited to develop a systematized modern or contemporary Chinese Medicine. Much more there has been a systematized approach towards theory and practice to make it teachable. Liu Lihong (2020) touches on this in his latest treatise, in that it takes now 3-4 years to teach Chinese Medicine whereas in the past its has been a lifelong pursuit. Hence, Tea Medicine practice, has remained some what niche , like other schools of medicine precisely because it has confidently and silently remained resistant to institutional or systematized formal structuring. This doesn’t mean it isn’t teachable, however it confers that to learn it is to live it rather than know it without necessarily practicing it.

Tea perhaps didn’t feature in the Shennong Bencaojing , written between about 200 and 250 CE as it had already achieved a cultural value in the proceeding Han Dynasty and its medicinal value and practice had already begun to be obscured in more popular practice through the variety and practice of use and value of different tea contemporary to these times.

It is also possible that due to naming taboo principles, as suggested in Yoke (2007) alongside using the same name for various plants, that tea as a herb may have had an obscured identification in any documentary texts. For example a 12th Century text, the Xixi Congyu refers to a variety of tea noted for its ability to confer longevity called “wanshou longya“. In previous more historic texts this name has been used for different plant material, therefore we cannot assume to expect to see just one entry in the medical canon as “tea” or “茶” . In regard to the variety of tea material (i.e. Camellia species) and what we should expect, especially from a Tea Medicine tradition, is to see a variety of different types or varieties of tea being referred to through individualized names based on their qualities and health value. This somewhat makes it difficult to identify a systematized or ordered catalogue of its use through time.

The next question, therefore logically to ask is whether Tea Medicine remains outside classical Chinese theory?

The answer again is “NO”. In the Shennong Bencaojing classification of materia medica is split into “noble”, “middle” and “low” medicine. Noble medicine consists of herbs and material that are non-toxic but are tonifying and supportive to human health. Tea fits this classification, despite not appearing in this medical volume. Tea not only tonifies but the variety of types and processing of tea allows its application in addressing a full compliment imbalances that leads to disease according to Classical Chinese Medical theory.

The ‘Yin–Yang’ theory is an ancient Chinese philosophy that underlies the practice of Classical Chinese medicine. Although Yang-tonic herbs tend to boost body function possibly through enhancing the mitochondrial oxidative processes, the Yin property (i.e. antioxidant potential) of these herbs can also play a role in safeguarding mitochondrial ATP generation. Tea has been shown to enhance metabolism with anti-oxidative chemicals within its leaf material as well as stimulate and and encourage regeneration at a cellular level.

Similarly tea contains both chemicals that stimulate the sympathetic nervous system as well as the parasympathetic. It is the skillful application of tea based upon the knowledge of both type, processing and quality of the tea material that allows Tea Medicine to effectively operate both physically and metaphysically in health based on Classical Chinese Medicine Theory.

Kim MJ. Tea and Curing through Analysis of Yin-Yang Theory. Journal of Industrial Convergence. 2020;18(1):97-107.
Yoke HP. Explorations in Daoism: Medicine and alchemy in literature. Routledge; 2007 Mar 6.
Z, Zhang S, Huang L, Zhu X, Zhao Q, Zeng Y, Zhou D, Wang D, Kuga H, Kamiya A, Qu M. Altered resting-state brain activities in drug-naïve major depressive disorder assessed by fMRI: Associations with somatic symptoms defined by Yin-Yang theory of the traditional Chinese Medicine. Frontiers in psychiatry. 2018 May 15;9:195.

Reflections on Tea Medicine practice

Tea is perhaps a little late to the party of Classical Chinese Medicine and herbology (中藥學 zhōngyào xué) and is not one of the chief herbs in the “Ten Key Formula Families”. Despite legends of Shen-nong , it doesn’t have a star role in the Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing (神農本草經), the classic of materia medica.

However, tea’s medicinal and tonic herb value has been somewhat overtaken by its cultural and social value without necessary any reflection on how it achieved its place in both human history and worldwide recognition. Behind the story of tea and even the legends is this fundamental principle of cause and effect and the value of tea in both treating and managing imbalance in the body or restoring health. Folklore does not document its knowledge in the same way as science and whilst there is legend it is mainly an oral tradition that is passed through generations.

Tea medicine is an example of this, but equally not resistant or opposed to classical medical inquiry and theory or more modern scientific scrutiny.

There remains a mind-set however that is resistant to the idea that one species of plant could hold so much potential or variance in its therapeutic value, yet there co-exists a recognition that the  same species of plant can provide such a variety of sensory and epicurean experience. I find this to be a mismatch as the same chemical and phenolic compounds in tea that give the variety of experience provide for the same variety or nuances of therapeutic value.

Perhaps one of the reasons of the poor acceptance of Tea Medicine as a practice is the failure of it to almost “self-certify”. We don’t have any written classical text of study, in fact perhaps the first classic text of tea could be cited as the text by Lu Yu (c. 760 CE) written during the Tang period of China. In this text there is very few references to the practice of Tea Medicine. In our current epoch, we feel the need of having some proof or certificate that accredits the value on things , whether its an artifact, artifice or cultural process. But now, more than anytime we should also recognize that not all proof denotes value and not all value has proof!

Equally and similarly, to the way Liu Lihong (2019) describes how Traditional Chinese Medicine has become devalued in practice due to a lack of understanding in its practice that is based on classical theory, I feel also the practice of Tea Medicine has not been valued due to failure of some to scrutinize with the same understanding available from the theory held within the classics, such as the Huangdi Neijing (黃帝內經).

I remember, in fact, it was my first experience of Tea Medicine with tea master and Taoist Master To in the early 1990’s that taught me the true understanding of Yin & Yang from the Huangdi Neijing. Master To was teaching me about tea but I had thought the tea was just an analogy to help me understand classical principles of Yin & Yang in respect to its application in health and Chinese medicine. It took me a long time to realize things were the other way round, as well as many years of staying with tea.

However, we all need reassurance of truth and value. When we are gifted gold and silver we look for a hallmark or assay, but unlike gold and silver true value rests in understanding and practice. A bar of gold resting in a bank only has monetary value, but when made into gold leaf and used to decorate Buddha statues or crafted into jewelry, its value can be expansive.

There have been some recent reassurance of the value of Tea Medicine from published research that I feel is worth sharing.

Tea Medicine efficacy rests on the key principle of modulating medicinal practice and values. Tea’s value as a tonic herb is associated often with its strong anti-oxidative compounds that are recognized as preventing cell damage through scavenging free-radicals. The anti-oxidative values of tea dried at different temperatures demonstrate differing levels of anti-oxidative properties (Afifah & Niwat 2020). Therefore the differing quality of a tea informed by different tea processes modulates its health effects adding meaning to the approaches undertaken with Tea Medicine which relies on classical Chinese theory of medicine.

Like other aspects of classical Chinese medicine herbology, Tea Medicine recognizes patterns and qualities related to Ying & Yang, Wuxing and Sheng Zhang Shou Cang and how such theory and understanding can be communicated or developed through the senses e.g. taste, smell & touch. Catechins, caffeine and theanine are just some of the important metabolites in tea leaves that play a role in in formation of taste and flavour of tea ( Gong et al 2020) but equally have well recognised pharmaceutical and medicinal function. Their quantities in tea leaves can be modulated by such things a sunshine as well as processing and soil qualities or rates of fertilizer or nutrition (Okemwa et al 2020). Hence different qualities of tea and processing will lead to different qualities of tea and its application in Tea Medicine.

Seasonal difference between the same tea material picked in Spring or Autumn harvests also confers to classical Chinese medical theory around the 5 elements (Wuxing) and Sheng Zhang Shou Cang which supports Tea Medicine practice and is exemplified in a recent study by Yu et al (2020) that showed the quality of black tea manufactured in the early Spring was better than that manufactured in the late Spring. The research demonstrated that different expressions of phenolic compounds expressed in the leaf material were the primary cause of this with most of these compounds such as catechins and gallates having significant pharmaceutical value. Therefore reassuring us of a practice that involves quality appraisal upon the 5 elements , embedded in Tea Medicine, that can direct a practitioner to exposing or identifying the tea’s medicinal value and use.

Much of modern research support for Tea Medicine practice is focused upon the pharmaceutical or biochemistry of a variety of tea. However we cannot ignore the value of the culture and rituals surrounding tea practice that also has its health benefits in both mindful practice and balancing rest and reflection with activity and study. This  itself following classic principles of Chinese medicine in the achievement or support of  balancing Yin and Yang.

Hence, Tea Medicine remains holistic and yet structured or targeted, but always flexible and responsive.

I continue to look forward to many future years of research in the field of tea and its associated impact on valuing the practice of Tea Medicine.

Afifah RA, Niwat C. Phenolic Contents and Antioxidant Activities of Various Infused Tea Liquids Made from Leaves of Green Tea (Camellia sinensis), Banaba (Lagestroemia speciosa) and Moringa (Moringa oleifera L.). Jurnal Teknologi Pengolahan Pertanian. 2020 Jul 5;2(1):14-9.
Gong AD, Lian SB, Wu NN, Zhou YJ, Zhao SQ, Zhang LM, Cheng L, Yuan HY. Integrated transcriptomics and metabolomics analysis of catechins, caffeine and theanine biosynthesis in tea plant (Camellia sinensis) over the course of seasons. BMC Plant Biology. 2020 Dec;20(1):1-4.
Lihong L. Classical Chinese Medicine. The Chinese University of Hong Kong Press; 2019 Apr 19.
Okemwa EK, Silvanuss KK. Effects of Different Fertilizer Rates on Total Polyphenols and Catechins of Selected Clones of Green Tea (Camellia sinensis L.[O] Kuntze). World. 2020 Jun 29;5(2):13-9.

Coronavirus lockdown & Time for Tea?

During these last few months whist the world has been experiencing a pandemic I have found solace in the quietness of nature. My morning walks to collect herbs made me recall how there are many medieval texts that talk about herbs and plants being picked at certain times of the day.
This all came to mind as, depending on what time I went to collect herbs, the easier or harder it was to find certain plants, despite having recalled their location the previous day.
I suspect mostly it is because of the sunlight and angle of the sun at certain periods that interacted with the botany and structure of a specific plant leading to them “hiding” depending on what time I ventured out. I recall some old herbal medicine texts and materia medica talking about certain plants being “shy” and “easily frightened” and even some references to plants “running away”!
This all made me think about the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) concept of the hours and the organs as pictured below in the body clock.

Chinese+clock+Blog.doc (1)

The body clock is built upon the concept of the cyclical ebb and flow of energy throughout the body. During a 24-hour period Qi moves in two-hour intervals through the organ systems. During sleep, Qi draws inward to restore the body. This phase is completed between 1 and 3 a.m., when the Liver cleanses the blood and performs a myriad of functions that set the stage for Qi moving outward again. It is interesting to note that blood returns to the Liver at night to support a sound and stable sleep pattern and as such the hours of 1am to 3am is where the Liver rules and where we should have our deepest restful sleep.

Equally there is a time for tea. We might talk about drinking seasonally with tea, where during the Spring and Summer months we should drink lighter and more delicate tea, and in the Autumn and Winter months we drink heavier more pungent tea. Certainly from a tea medicine perspective this helps us to retain balance and directly relates to the principle of sheng-zhang-shou-cang (生 長收藏) being; grow, transform, accumulate and store or otherwise understood as seasonal flow. But, there is also a time of day for tea too!

If we consider the TCM body clock to maintain balance we should awaken with sweeter fragrant teas in the morning progressing to bitter tea for midday to more pungent and sour tea later in the day. However whilst this is a general rule of thumb it does not take into account individual imbalances and patterns.

Drinking in balance and harmony with our own microcosm and the macrocosm of the day and seasons is the life long practice of tea medicine. But observing our drinking habits and making adjustments depending upon knowing our imbalances and health takes skill. However I would encourage gaining a deeper knowledge of health and tea that not only will enhance your appreciation of tea sessions but also support many more sessions with good health in the future.

Tea & COVID19

Recently the office of the 14th Dalai Lama had to officially redact a statement that had been circulated as “fake” news. The statement suggested that his holiness, the Dalai Lama had proclaimed the benefit of drinking black tea in combating the corona virus. The widely shared post exposed as fake claimed that the Tibetan spiritual leader was accumulating a special mantra and that consuming black tea (??hong cha) would treat infections of the novel corona-virus, which has become a pandemic, causing widespread disruption and panic around the world.


At this current time, as we face an unprecedented pandemic, there are multitudes of “fake” news reports and statements on how to combat COVID19. What’s interesting about this one is that it should promote black tea, especially among the butter tea drinking Tibetan community.

There is no evidence that black tea has any special qualities to specifically target corona-virus, and I am not going to try and pull together some research to suggest such things, however surprisingly this bit of “fake” news might not be as bad as others I’ve encountered and drinking black tea at this time may not be a such a bad thing.

We know already that tea has a number of phyto-chemicals that help us to cope with stress and helps to make us feel “altogether better” about things. We also know that there is some substantial evidence that green tea and tea polyphenols have anti-viral properties. A study by Nakayama et al (1993) demonstrated that tea polyphenols bind to the haemagglutinin of influenza virus inhibiting its adsorption into cells, and thus blocking its infectivity.  Song, Lee & Seong (2005) suggested that the antiviral effect of tea catechins on influenza virus is a result of them altering the physical properties of the viral membrane, effectively acting by altering the physical integrity of virus particles or host membrane and modifying the viral infection cycle.

There is similar encouraging evidence around other human viral pathogens such as Hepatitis (Ciesek et al 2011) and research prevails on exploring the effects of tea on Dengue virus (Mahajan et al 2020). But as of today’s date no evidence has been circulated or published around its effect on corona-virus.

As a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) practitioner of tea medicine we understand from traditional Chinese medical perspectives that communicable diseases such as influenza, SARS and indeed corona-virus are external pathogens of wind  and occur due to transition between the seasons, particularly in flu and corona-virus, between Winter and Spring. It is very important as prevention therefore to maintain our vital Qi (immunity) and avoid stagnation. One of the significant herbs in the repertoire of materia medica that helps to do this is Astragalus , but from a tea medicine perspective it is having more detail from the 5 element system or wuxing that may help.


According to wuxing  the transition from Winter to Spring is the pattern of water creating wood, governed by metal and earth. To understand this better we can say that the ability for Spring to manifest in completeness is dependent on Winter to have occurred completely, but Autumn (metal) and late Summer (Earth) needed to have been also balanced. When Autumn and late Summer are disharmonious then Winter will not manifest properly leading to either an excess or deficit (yin or yang). Hence if we then understand the symptoms of corona-virus which manifests as a wind-cold external pathogen and that it impacts on the lungs (metal) we start to see a pattern of disharmony that allows us to either prevent or approach it through both TCM and tea medicine.

The pattern would suggest, as an overview, a deficit in metal and Autumn leading to a yin pathology. We would therefore approach supporting the lungs primarily and the kidney (Winter and Water) secondary. At the same time we may need to consider how we support the Liver (Wood) in flourishing and manifesting Spring fully, i.e. tonifying.

The tea medicine approach would therefore initially commence with:

  • Tonifying Qi
  • Increasing/supporting the Lung meridian
  • Support the Kidney meridian
  • Tonify the Liver

This may all seem abstract but from a TCM perspective it is more around the patterns of illness and concerns rather than an allopathic approach to a particular pathogen. We certainly know, based on current data, not everyone manifests the pathogen of corona-virus in the same way and to some extent children remain immune possibly due to their vital Qi reflecting a strong Spring, as opposed to the elderly.

A recent Chinese study (Luo et al 2020) suggested a formula including;

  • Huang Qi (Milk Vetch) sweet, warm, supports the Spleen – tonifys the Qi
  • Gancao (Licorice) sweet, neutral supports the lung – harmonises other herbs and tonifys the Spleen
  • Fangfeng (Siler) acrid,warm, supports lung and liver – protects against wind pathogens
  • Jinyinhua (Honeysuckle)sweet, cold, supports the lungs – disperses wind
  • Lianqiao (Forsythia) bitter,cool, supports the lungs = clears heat and resolves fever

We can see some correspondences here both with the 5 element diagnostic above and with classic formulas such as Yupingfeng powder that fights off external pathogens and tonifys the Qi. There are both herbs to tonify the Qi and support the lungs, some of the herbs have secondary effects on liver meridian but primarily are aimed at a defensive position against the external pathogen by supporting the spleen (Earth, late summer). Therefore its approach, in regard to principles of wuxing and fang ( principles of energetics and flow as in Sheng Zhang Shou Cang –“generation, growth, contraction, storage” or Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter) is one of supporting and tonifying Summer to ensure a harmonious Autumn that leads to a complete Winter and harmonious Spring. It involves starting at the centre and working outwards.

To critically appraise Lui et al (2020) there is nothing wrong with this approach as a generic all-round panacea or formula for the population, however it would need to be modified with a patient or person who is not starting from Summer and is otherwise, for example starting from Autumn with for example weak lungs or Winter i.e. elderly in their years.

Therefore from a tea medicine perspective and to evaluate an approach, on the evidence currently available, we can continue to adopt a generic prescription that supports Summer through tea that is sweet and fragrant, supporting the Spleen. However as we get more prescriptive to the individual we need to consider moving towards supporting Autumn and Winter with teas such as hei cha that have both strong salty and sour profiles.

In summary, perhaps the “fake” news about black tea is not such a bad thing but from a tea medicine perspective perhaps hei cha would be a better translation to make this information more valuable and valid in the current pandemic. There is no evidence base for a particular allopathic panacea for COVID19 from either TCM or tea medicine, however there are some valuable research to suggest they both offer some hope in maintaining health in these times as well as offering a valuable and clinical reasoned approach in preventing and combating COVID19 infection.


Over the last month I have been working alongside healthcare colleagues in the community on the front line and I have to say that we all adopt a variety of practices and methods alongside PPE to keep us safe and our patients safe. Not all of these practices are thoroughly evidence based but they all give us some form of hope or support us in carrying out, what at times, might feel both frustrating and futile work. I therefore will continue to evaluate any practice that helps us remain hopeful and makes us feel more secure in such insecure times and if they at least give us hope then we can continue to take steps forward!!

Ciesek S, von Hahn T, Colpitts CC, Schang LM, Friesland M, Steinmann J, Manns MP, Ott M, Wedemeyer H, Meuleman P, Pietschmann T. The green tea polyphenol, epigallocatechin‐3‐gallate, inhibits hepatitis C virus entry. Hepatology. 2011 Dec;54(6):1947-55.
Luo H, Tang QL, Shang YX, Liang SB, Yang M, Robinson N, Liu JP. Can Chinese medicine be used for prevention of corona virus disease 2019 (COVID-19)? A review of historical classics, research evidence and current prevention programs. Chinese journal of integrative medicine. 2020 Feb 17:1-8.
Mahajan P, Tomar S, Kumar A, Yadav N, Arya A, Dwivedi VD. A multi-target approach for discovery of antiviral compounds against dengue virus from green tea. Network Modeling Analysis in Health Informatics and Bioinformatics. 2020 Dec;9(1):1-0.
Nakayama M, Suzuki K, Toda M, Okubo S, Hara Y, Shimamura T. Inhibition of the infectivity of influenza virus by tea polyphenols. Antiviral research. 1993 Aug 1;21(4):289-99.
Song JM, Lee KH, Seong BL. Antiviral effect of catechins in green tea on influenza virus. Antiviral research. 2005 Nov 1;68(2):66-74.

Tea & Incense

brand_ib1This is no doubt a huge topic, one that could occupy a whole subject or blog all to itself, so to touch upon it perhaps not to give it sufficient attention it deserves.

However, I feel I can introduce some  insight and dialogue because of a growing trend or exploration of incense practice alongside gong-fu tea practice.

I cannot think of a culture where some form of incense or aromatic substance is not used to enhance a social or ritual experience. Therefore it would appear logical to have incense practice alongside tea practice, but there is also an argument of scents and aromatics overpowering the scent and fragrance of the tea. Certainly you could say in places such as Japan, the Kodo or incense ceremony has developed its own refined rules and etiquette outside and separate to the tea ceremony, but still it would not be unheard of incense and tea being consumed together.

Controversially, I feel I might fall into the puritan camp where tea and incense are kept separate, and their individual enjoyment should not be merged into a kinesthesic or sensory overloaded experience. However I am entirely open to the argument that when tea and scent, such as incense, are skillfully matched you can have an entirely different experience that only enhances your understanding of the tea. Iijima et al (2009) suggest that the odor of incense may enhance cortical activities, if this is the case then incense could lead us to a level of awareness that has a positive contribution to our experience and appreciation of tea.  MRI scans reveal that the orbitofrontal, piriform, and the superior temporal cortices of the brain process olfactory information, these areas are linked in with the limbic system and hence explains the power of scents on invoking memory and modulating mood. This is something that could, for all intent and purposes, layer our tea sessions with meaning.

To take a viewpoint from energetics, the burn or smolder of aromatics via incense is on a different level than the steamed fragrance of brewing tea. Simply put fumigation is not the same as aromatherapy. I wonder if this somewhat explains why in more coffee drinking cultures incense is heavy and smokey and other cultures, such as in Japan, it is more about the smolder to release a gentle waft of scent? I realise this is a gross over-statement but we can come to understand that the way we can treat aromatics alongside tea culture needs proper attention. Heavy scents and smokiness may overwhelm some tea sessions, whilst in others it becomes part of building a sensory field of experience. I have sat in tea houses in souks and drank sweet Iranian tea alongside the smell of streets and animal traffic only to be brought back to the present moment and the tea with the heavy burst of frankincense smoke from a censer brought upon the breeze. Equally I have sat in a heavy incense smoke filled tibetan gompa during hours long puja finding that in someway the strong butter tea cuts through and compliments the experience.

There are many components and ingredients to incense and yet one particular draws my attention, appreciated in both Western and Eastern cultures. Agarwood, aloeswood, eaglewood, or gharuwood is a fragrant dark resinous wood used in incense, perfume and may be more familiar to us as “Oud”.It is formed in the heartwood of aquilaria trees as part of a defence response to infection. The odour of agarwood is complex and pleasing, with few or no similar natural analogues.  The incense smoke is also characterized by a “sweet-balsamic” note and “shades of vanilla and musk” and amber. It is incorporated into incense in Japan and in the Arabic world as well as extending into orthodox Christianity and many cultures in-between.


Similiar to what we know from the pharma of tea,  the aromatic qualities of agarwood are influenced by the species, geographic location, its branch, trunk and root origin, age, and methods of harvesting and processing. Equally similiar is the effects agarwood incense has on the human experience.

Benzylacetone is released by heated agarwood, when this is inhaled it has a potent effect on reducing the locomotor activity and producing sedative effects (Miyoshi et al 2013) not unlike the consumption of theobromine and theanine in tea.

This is perhaps why similar to tea, incense has been used both as focus of social ceremony as well as a form of medicine. In ceremony it can facilitate change and be a vehicle of transformation that heals on the psycho-somatic level. In consumption of scent it invokes memories or heals memories. In inhaling the pharma the phytochemicals bring about physiological change.

We may then start to understand that alongside “tea medicine” we have medicine in incense that goes beyond its pharma and encompasses a total experience. In this way I feel incense is valuable within the framework of “tea medicine”, to bring about a complete healing of a person, but as with all medicines we do need to be careful and skillful in its application.

Choice of incense alongside tea needs to be mindful and thought out. Application needs to be perhaps even more skillful.

Iijima M, Osawa M, Nishitani N, Iwata M. Effects of incense on brain function: evaluation using electroencephalograms and event-related potentials. Neuropsychobiology. 2009;59(2):80-6
Miyoshi T, Ito M, Kitayama T, Isomori S, Yamashita F. Sedative effects of inhaled benzylacetone and structural features contributing to its activity. Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin. 2013 Sep 1;36(9):1474-81.


Tea and the 5 Elements

Within Traditional Chinese Medicine and within Chinese philosophy we have the concept of the 5 elements (fire, water, earth, metal,wood).

This is known in Wuxing or 五行. which directly translates as “five rows” or the “row of fives”, however is often considered to indicate something that moves in sets of 5, indicating the transitory and “flow” of these elements.


Within traditional formal tea ceremonies it has been discussed that these five elements are present in the formal arrangement of the tea master and the guests

Each tea setting is arranged and stands for the four directions with the tea master representing the 5th element. However in more informal occasions we can see their symbolic presence with tea sessions in the following

Earth,  土  – ceramic teaware
Wood, 木 – the tea leaves
Fire,  火 -the kettle stove
Metal, 金 -the tea kettle
Water, 水 -(speaks for itself!)

Of course this is just a suggestion as different tea settings, sessions and tables can be interpreted using the concept of wuxing in different ways. However it does suggest that to bring into our sessions some of that symbolic harmony we should consider how, even informally, we incorporate the 5 elements.

To a certain extent by incorporating the 5 elements we are bringing in a microcosmic balance and flow that represents a macrocosmic flow of life itself. What we play out in the tea session is representative of bigger things! Order and harmony is something we should strive for in our enjoyment of tea.

The Mawangdui silk texts describes the 5 elements as “virtues” and as such their symbolic inclusion into any tea session is only a positive.

To another extent the interaction of each of these elements symbolically enacts out cosmic energy that is the universe’s eternal flow, something embraced in Taoism. Take for example the relationship between the water and tea leaves. In wuxing theory water nourishes wood, wood overcomes earth, hence the ceramic teaware is overflowed with tea! Similarly metal collects and nourishes water as the kettle holds dearly our water for tea.

This all may seem conceptual and highly symbolic and open to multiple interpretations, however it can add another layer to or table when hosting a session. You may ask yourself where does my electric hotplate or kettle fit in or what does my glass teapot represent? These are all good questions as it makes us think in a different way and on a different level of how we can enjoy our tea experience.

For example, imagine a set up as follows:

bone china gaiwan and teaware, tea (of course!) and a metal flask of steaming water 

In the eyes of wuxing there may appear some deficits to the balance of such an arrangement. There is perhaps a lack of earth element despite the ceramic teaware as the gaiwan and cups may be delicate and don’t communicate the sufficient strength of earth. There is deficits in the fire element as there is no heat source and only stored heated water. Does the metal flask sufficiently represent the metal element?

How might we change this?

We might consider adding more earth through introducing this element through either changing our tea or service ware or even just adding stones or sculptural rocks to our tea table. We might consider bringing in colours that represent fire, changing our teaware to crimson bold cups or even a vase of flower symbolic of Summer, the season of fire e.g. bamboo or lotus.

What I am suggesting is not some Confucian notion of tight order or structure in how we enjoy our teas, but rather a way of seeing our tea sessions through wuxing  theory that adds not only a deeper level of enjoyment but also meaning. Even if I am out with gaiwan in nature and only have at hand what nature provides I can consider these elements in sitting down and enjoying a good tea experience through making small modifications of considerations.

I would therefore encourage both experimentation and exploration of this yourself and see if you enhance your tea experience with wuxing.





Traditional Unani medicine and tea

The term Unani or more so Yunani means “Greek”, and heralds back to a Perso-Arabic system of medicine that is  based on the teachings of the Greek physicians such as Hippocrates and Galen. Arab and Persian elaborations upon the Greek system of medicine by figures like Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and al-Razi (Rhazes) influenced the early development of Unani.

The Hellenistic origin of Unani medicine is still visible in its being based on the classical four humours: phlegm (balgham), blood (dam), yellow bile (ṣafrā) and black bile (saudā’), but it has also been influenced by Indian and Chinese traditional systems predominantly via the culture of the great Silk Road.

It is easy to dismiss the influence of Unani medicine along the societies and cultures of the Silk Road by focussing upon the similarities and synchronisation of Traditional Chinese Medicine and its practices. On the outside practices such as cupping, herbal medicine and principles of balancing and observing more than just a patient’s symptoms appear akin to Traditional Chinese Medicine systems, however the catergorisation of illness and imbalance or disharmony around the humours makes it somewhat unique as a system practiced today.

It is interesting to suppose that whilst there has been hundreds of years of cultural dialogue with trade and medicine along the Silk Road we would also expect the value of tea as a medicine to also have traveled too. Certainly the practice of tea has.

Namita et al (2012) suggest that green tea has been incorporated into the materia medica of Unani medicine for a significant period of time.

Chaey or tea is listed as one of the important plants in the pharmacopoeia used in Unani medicine in India today (Kumar 2014)

It is understood that tea  increases the body’s “warmness” (Kabir 2002), and anecdotally I have spoken to people of the tribal regions bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan, who practice unani, that tea wards off the invasion of “coldness” in the body. It was interesting for me to note that one day, observing children devour ice cream on the streets of Peshawar on a hot dry afternoon, that their seniors warned them not to eat too much as they would get a cold. Within that week two of the children were suffering from sniffles and sneezes, only to swiftly being prescribed steaming hot cups of strong green tea!!


It is possible to understand the tea medicine from a Unani perspective in the diagram above. Coldness causes imbalances of the bile and phlegm which manifests in symptoms of congestion, oedema, poor circulation and lacking in energy or weight gain. There is strong correlation with tea research that tea can combat weight gain (e.g. Snoussi et al 2014) as well as benefits associated with a reduction in cardiovascular disease risk factors and improved circulation (Woodward et al 2018), the dietary flavonoids, such as those present in tea are associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

It is no surprise that other systems of traditional medicine, such as Unani, that would have had hundreds of years of contact with tea as a materia medica have incorporated it into their treatment formulas, especially given the modern mass of tea research accumulating.

I think it is useful to appraise not only recent research but a variety of these traditional systems to gain a deeper understanding of tea medicine and its culture.

Kabir H. Introduction to Ilmul advia. Shamsher Publisher and Distributors; 2002.
Kumar N. Some plants used in Ayurvedic and Unani systems of Medicine, Tehsil Joginder Nagar, district mandi, HP, India. International Journal of Food, Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences. 2014;4(1):73-80.
Namita P, Mukesh R, Vijay KJ. Camellia sinensis (green tea): A review. Global journal of pharmacology. 2012;6(2):52-9.
Snoussi C, Ducroc R, Hamdaoui MH, Dhaouadi K, Abaidi H, Cluzeaud F, Nazaret C, Le Gall M, Bado A. Green tea decoction improves glucose tolerance and reduces weight gain of rats fed normal and high-fat diet. The Journal of nutritional biochemistry. 2014 May 1;25(5):557-64.
Woodward KA, Hopkins ND, Draijer R, de Graaf Y, Low DA, Thijssen DH. Acute black tea consumption improves cutaneous vascular function in healthy middle-aged humans. Clinical Nutrition. 2018 Feb 1;37(1):242-9.