This Playa del Rey Tea Ceremony Is Like Meditation, Turbocharged

You know that woman who doesn’t seem to get flustered? That person you know who seems to calmly take on life’s challenges, from the demanding work life to the diffident husband, the out-there kids, the 405 traffic? (Well, maybe the traffic gets to her sometimes.) Chances are she’s meeting life with aplomb due to a meditation practice, the quiet sitting with self that builds calm and resiliency. As a now-and-again meditator myself, I’ve struggled with developing a more consistent practice, even if all it takes is 20 minutes of quiet breathing each morning. That’s why, when I heard about a tea ceremony held alternately in a small room in Playa del Rey and outside in Topanga, I was intrigued, because it sounded like meditation—but with caffeine. And since it was a group activity, I thought at least I’d sit through a whole session because I’d be too embarrassed to leave in the middle.

A cherry on top: The New York Times wrote a story about the ceremony that was an eye-roll emoji about kooky Angelenos, and I was curious to see if the $22-per-seat event was really that silly. So in the interest of investigative journalism, with a not-so-secret hope I’d actually get some spiritual succor, I attended a tea ceremony at Ay Am. And, um, I choked.

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tea ceremony meditation shop
Dana Dickey

But First, Shopping

Ay Am, the community space that hosts regular “tea sits,” is in a squat building just off the wetlands in Playa del Rey. The whole area has famously been prevented from overdevelopment since it’s under the flight path of nearby LAX, but the sound of whizzing planes is drowned out by fields of swampy wetlands twittering with birds who use the place as a sanctuary.

Before checking in to my tea ceremony, I had a few minutes to browse the cabinet of curiosities that is the front room to Ay Am. Crystals, shamanic pamphlets, sage bundles, botanical-infused oils...basically, this place is one-stop shopping for all the woo-woo wonders.

tea ceremony los angeles table

Next Stop, Tea Room

About nine of us tea ceremonialists (tea aspirants? acolytes?) filed upstairs to a small room where we sat on cushions. Our leader sat cross-legged behind a low, raw-edged wood table, and her assistant brought her cast-iron teapots to pour into another cast-iron teapot, which was filled with loose tea. Light filtered through a clerestory window, and we all sat silently watching the woman carefully pour water into the pot, let it steep for a moment, then pour it out of the pot into speckled artisanal pottery cups that she would hand to the front row of attendees. They’d then turn and hand the back row the cup with movements as slow and deliberate as the ones the leader had used.

By the time my cup of tea reached the back row, I was so relaxed I was worried I’d drop the cup. I saw the leader and others really get into their tea, so I followed suit: I held the cup under my nose and smelled the tangy scent, felt the steam like moist breath on my face and finally sipped the medium-strong tea with flecks of leaves in the cup.

tea ceremony los angeles pour

Finally, I Choke

Here’s what’s cool about the tea ceremony at Ay Am: It lasts an hour, but in that hour, time speeds up (you don’t notice that you’ve been sitting cross-legged for so long, because you’re paying attention to what stage of decanting is going on, to make sure to return your cup to the leader in time for the next round). And time also slow-slow-slowwws, because the deliberate rhythm—hot water pouring, tea steeping, cup filling, cup passing, people sipping, cup being passed back up—is repeated six times. It’s a crash course in mindfulness, and I was both energized and, frankly, a little narcotized. Not by any drug—I’m not sure if the tea even had any caffeine in it—but by the silence and graceful movements of the small group. By the third or fourth round, I was pretty pleased with myself: I got this, I am really going with the flow.

Then a mouthful of tea went down the wrong way and I had that brief sensation of drowning, followed by a mild spit-up session and protracted coughing. Like the kind of loud coughing where you get up to see if Nana needs the Heimlich. This is the last thing you’d want to do in a super hushed, perfectly cued setup like a tea ceremony. But to the credit of the leader and the other guests, no one told me to leave. (Then again, they didn’t hop up to help, either.) It was a great ego leveling: Just when I relax too much and get too full of myself, well, I choke on what’s good.

tea ceremony los angeles sipping
Global Tea Hut

Ladies And Gentlemen, The Prestige

No trickery or hocus-pocus is involved in this tea ceremony, which follows the teachings of an expat American who opened a Taiwanese Zen retreat and publishes a magazine about all things tea. There’s also little of the flagrant cultural appropriation that New York Times readers leveled against the place in the comments of a recent profile. (Or possibly I’m tone-deaf—although as a former practicing Zen meditator at a New York monastery where Americans wore robes and chanted in Japanese, and as a current Angeleno yoga practitioner who goes to classes where om is chanted, this seems like a comparative nonissue.) What I do know, sincerely, was that at the end of the ceremony, when the leader asked us to share an observation about the practice, there were comments alternatively giddy and glowing and warm from participants who were happy to have had help shutting off their electronic devices and focusing on the simple act of being quiet, in a room, with others. As for myself, I bought a couple crystals on the way out, and driving home through the wildlife protected wetlands, I felt (ahem) as free as a bird.

dana dickey
Dana Dickey

Senior Editor

Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space...
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