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An Elementary Introduction to the Qi of Tea
By Gao You Cheng

Lu Tong was a tea scholar in the Tang Dynasty. He has been called a "celestial harbinger of tea" for the depth and elegance his poetry conveys. It is obvious that even so long ago tea masters where intimately aware of the movement of Qi within the body when appreciating good tea. His famous poem "Seven Bowls of Tea" limpidly captures the change towards subtler perceptions as the tea session continues:

"The first cup moistens the throat;
The second shatters all feelings of solitude;
The third cup deans digestion;
The fourth induces perspiration;
With the fifth cup, the body sharpens, crisp;
And the sixth cup leads to heaven;
The seventh cup sits steaming - it needn't be drunk, as from head to feet one rises to the abode of the immortals."

Lu Tong's fifth through seventh cups are describing the movement of Qi through the body. Some experts believe that the Qi is already in us, and that the tea only inspires it to begin flowing. However, most tea lovers these days pay much more attention to the fragrance, liquor, taste and sensations (chayun) their teas offer. Maybe, some would feel that Lu Tong's poem is too abstract or perhaps beyond the experience of an average person. In the beginning, when I first started enjoying tea, I also held such reservations. Some friends often spoke of the movement upwards of Qi, ultimately reaching the back of the head in an explosion of bliss called "Qi Da Bai Hui". I thought the idea farfetched. Even intellectually the words seemed too intangible for me to understand.

Recently, I joined a symposium on "The Way of Tea" (Cha Dao). I found that the more experience I gained drinking good teas, and the more I learned, the more my body became capable of experiencing. I found that almost all of the people there had developed sensitivity enough to feel the movement of Qi in their bodies. I hope that by sharing my experience here I may help others to begin to sense and recognize the subtle sensations in the body when Qi is in motion.

How to Prepare Oneself to Experience Cha Qi

* Adequate Time

One must be sure to allocate enough time for the tea session. This is especially important for beginners like myself. One of the lecturers at the meeting stressed how difficult it is to recognize subtleties if we don't set all our worldly concerns aside. He mentioned that all people have this capacity - we let go of our concerns when we have enough free time to actually relax. Before we began drinking the teas, we all shut off our cell phones, relaxed and tried to let our cares drift off.

* The Environment

Traditionally, most tea rooms were always decorated in a simple yet elegant way. The light should be soft and dim, and the room should be quiet. It is also better if one's tea room is properly ventilated and comfortable. Decorations that inspire relaxation, like bonsai trees, flowers or some nice calligraphy are often preferable, as long as there aren't too many. Many tea lovers will play some gentle and soothing music, like the Gu Qing, to help inspire peace. While many masters gravitate towards simplicity in teaware, as well as decor, it is only important that the teaware not cause too much distraction. The ambience should have an overall sense of serenity. Even before the symposium, I had visited several tea houses that made me feel peaceful and calm almost right away. The more untroubled the body and mind are, the easier it will be to recognize the subtle sensations in the body.

* Preparing the Body

It often helps to wear loose-fitting and comfortable clothes. Our house clothes often help us to relax just by association. Many times, we will eat a light snack before the tea session. It is best to approach the tea with neither an empty nor a full stomach. Drinking tea on an empty stomach might make one feel some slight discomfort, and a full stomach dulls one's ability to taste, smell and of course feel the sensations cause by the Cha Qi. A clear sense of one's body overall is a great place to start from. The organizers of the symposium also mentioned that their years of research have shown that a vegetarian diet allows one to perceive the subtleties of Cha Qi much easier and even more lucidly. A vegetarian diet is not required, but one may wish to experiment and see if it affects one's own tea sessions.

* Quiet

Perhaps the most important aspect of learning to feel Cha Qi is that the tea session be conducted in quiet. Our minds are already a tempest of thoughts, doubts and worries - chatting only stimulates the mind to focus on external events, rather than concentrating on the body. Furthermore, many of the old Puerh teas that inspire the greatest Qi in our bodies are extremely rare and expensive. In the future, such precious teas will be unavailable. It is therefore very important that they be appreciated fully while they still last, and that cannot happen if those drinking them are not concentrated. The reverence of the tea and focus on it exclusively are paramount to the appreciation of Cha Qi.

The Tea Session

After one is more relaxed the brewing may begin. We use a smelling cup (wen shiang bet) to appreciate the tea, including Puerh. According to my personal experience, the smelling cup serves three important functions: Firstly, it slows down the entire process, inspiring ease and tranquility. Relaxation occurs more fluently when the session is slower. The second reason for the smelling cup is that it adds another dimension to the tea experience. Why wouldn't one want to appreciate the tea with as many senses as possible? It would seem that even those that are uninterested in Cha Qi would still want to enjoy their teas in this way. While it is possible to smell the liquor directly in the cup, or if one is alone, in the pitcher or teapot/gaiwan lid - still, none of these methods offer nearly as much fragrance as the smelling cup. There is actually some science to their design. Much of the wonderful aromas offered by teas are related to the oils in the leaves. When the hot liquor is poured into a smelling cup and then quickly transferred to the drinking cup, these oils evaporate, leaving behind the pure smell of the tea. DifFerent shapes of smelling cups also improve the duration of the smell, just as long, thin cups are to appreciate the smells of wine. The third and final reason for using the smelling cup is that it increases one's ability to perceive the Cha Qi. Take a long and slow draught of the tea's aroma and release it in an equally unhurried manner. One will quickly find that the body and mind are both becoming calmer. The Qi in a good tea can right away pass through the nasal cavity and hit the center of the head, called the "Bai Hui" Practice inhaling the tea three or four times each steeping. It will become apparent that one's sensitivity is increasing with each pour. It also helps to close the eyes as much as possible during the session, which guides the attention inward, towards the sensations in the body.

After appreciating the fragrance of the tea, one can begin drinking. Try not to finish the cup all at once. It is best to sip the tea in halves or even thirds. Try to feel the Cha Qi rising to the top of the head. After swallowing, a chewing motion and clicking of the tongue on the upper palate helps one to taste the tea. Try to feel the sensations on the upper palate and throat. Focusing on the grosser sensations will lead to more concentration, sensitivity, and ultimately the subtle flow of Qi. There will definitely be a temperature change in the throat, esophagus and stomach. While breathing slowly, try to feel the warmth in the body. Concentrate on the elbows, palms and fingertips as they all have more nerve-endings and are consequently easier to feel. One may begin to perspire, tremor or have any other form of gross sensation. Try to concentrate on these sensations. They aren't the movement of the Qi, but the more centered the mind becomes the easier it will be to recognize the Cha Qi.

All at once, the tea-drinker will begin to feel a kind of flow of particles in the palms or fingertips. Some have described this as tingling or slight prickling. It feels like an energy moving around. It could be on the surface or within. Teas that have strong Cha Qi will quickly envelope the entire body in such tingling awareness, usually rising in some pattern towards the center of the head (Bai Hut). After finishing a few cups, it helps to have a break of ten minutes or so between steepings. One can rest one's palms gently on his or her legs facing upwards. Breathe deeply, relax and focus on any changes happening in the body. Not all teas have Cha Qi, but if a tea does, one will quickly begin to feel the subtle flow of energy in the palms or fingertips, moving over them like water. Try not to focus too much on the thoughts that arise in the mind. The more centered the mind is in the body, the more perceptive it will be. At the symposium, we repeated this process a few times a day, and by the third or fourth session I was amazed that I could actually feel the subtle vibration of Cha Qi moving in my body. My whole body began to tingle and vibrate, as if melting. It was a rather blissful experience, changing the way in which I would experience tea from then on.

The methods mentioned above are merely suggestion. They are the ways that one large group of tea veterans have used to teach several hundred tea lovers to approach Cha Qi. They aren't laws carved in stone. Feel free to alter any of them to suit the situation. After all, a person knows their own body and mind better than anyone else. What relaxes one and how to focus one's mind on the tea will be slightly different for everyone.

Kinds of Cha Qi

Generally, the Cha Qi. will manifest in one of several overall patterns. Each session, even if the same tea is drunk twice, will have slight variations. In the beginning, I was overwhelmed by my ability to even feel the Qi, but as the symposium went on I was amazed when I began to detect slight discrepancies in Qi that I had previously felt as being the same. My sensitivity was really increasing.

On the Head

1. The Qi may go straight up to the "Bai Hut', forehead or the back of the brain if it is strong enough. This will cause a kind of fullness or numb feeling to follow.
2. Sometimes one may feel an itchy, hot sensation in the cheeks. This often leads to a kind of massage of the eyeballs, eyebrow region or the acupuncture point called the "Tai Yang Xue".
3. The Qi may revolve around the head in spirals.

On the Body

1. Usually, the Qi moving through the body follows two different patterns: The first is when it moves backwards to forwards in waves of subtle sensations; sometimes this might feel as a spiraling around the body. The second is a kind of delicate pulsing or rhythm inside the body.
2. One may feel a movement akin to a hiccup, either with or without sound.
3. A feeling of rising sensations up the spine; often beginning at the "Du Mai" acupuncture point.
4. Sometimes people will have some blockages, caused by unhealthy parts of the body or poor diet, when they open it could mean perspiration or even sharp pain in the acupuncture points. After a few passes this should reside.
5. Sometimes the initial reaction might cause emotions to surface. Several participants wept when they first recognized their Qi and were unable to explain why afterwards.
6. Sometimes the Qi will pass over the skin, other times through the flesh. If the tea is strong enough, the whole body will be enveloped in a warm vibration of energy that feels like tingling.

On the Hands and Legs

1. The Qi is easier to feel moving down the elbows towards the palms and then fingertips. It often causes them to feel slightly numb. It may cause an ever-so-slight sting in the fingertips that isn't uncomfortable, but is useful for concentration.

Kinds of Qi: Soft Cha Qi

This kind of Cha Qi makes one's mind calm and generates a peaceful, light feeling. It is elegant and often results in the cottony inner rhythm mentioned above. The gentleness can increase gradually, but even when perception is consumed by it, this kind of Cha Qi remains feathery and light. This energy is Yin. It is soft and comfortable. Through experimentation using the blind comparison of several tea drinkers who recorded their perceptions, we have found that the following teas have such Yin Cha Qi: Xia Tuo Cha from the 1970's, 70's 7562, 60's Zhu Tong Xiang Hao, and even aged Oolong from the 1970's. The teas that we found to rise in strength over the duration of the session, while still maintaining a kind of delicacy were: 1920's Long Ma, and Bai Nien Hong Zhi (100-year-old loose leaf).

Kinds of Qi: Strong Cha Qi

The stronger kind of Cha Qi often hits one after the first sip, or smell even. Some of the teas rose right to the top of the head in the first sniff of the smelling cup, causing a numb feeling similar to that felt just before fainting. This potent Yung Qi sometimes even bursts forth like horses from the starting gate. This type of Qi often causes grosser sensations like perspiration, heat, faster heartbeat or pulse. However, after these pass and blockages are cleared, this Qi usually leads to an overall sense of comfort.

We found that the stronger, Yang Qi tends to follow two general patterns. One is lower in density, causing a sensation that feels almost as if there are gaps between the atoms of the body. The movement or pulsing is slower with more space between. The second variety moves more rapidly and feels like a strong current of too many small particles to really distinguish any one. This kind of Cha Qi is higher in density and often merges the whole body into a mass of particles that are vibrating briskly. The bliss that results when the whole body opens is indescribable. Among the teas we found to have this Qi are: 1950's Hong Yin, 50's Lan Yin, and many others like Song Ping Hao and even some old loose-leaf teas.

The Variations of Cha Qi

Every person will feel something slightly different than those around them. It was amazing enough to find such a concordance in the patterns of Cha Qi we have described above. Even the same tea will be different each time. No two sessions are the same, and as we grow in experience we are more able to recognize the discrepancies, however subtle. Here arc some of the personal experiences of those that joined the symposium:

* 1930's Hao Ji Cha

The Cha Qi went up to my forehead, bringing sensations of heaviness, faintness and fullness in my head. My mind felt empty, beyond thought and my body slowly became more and more comfortable.

* 1970's Lao Shui Xian Wuyi Yen Cha

The Cha Qi of this tea was very unique. Immediately after the first cup, it caused sensations on my scalp - it felt like a kind of numbness there, without any heat. My body felt slightly cool when I closed my eyes. From the third cup, there was a stronger numbness all throughout my head.

* 1970's Xiao Tuo Cha 100g

This tea was mellow and smooth. The Cha Qi was delicate and steady. It relaxed my body immediately and opened all the pores. I quickly drifted into a meditative state after just a few cups.

* 1940's Independently Ordered Tie Beeng

Wow, this tea should have been named "Without a Moment to Lose." The Cha Qi went straight up to the Bai Hui immediately, immersing my body in a strong wave of tingling sensation that was rather blissful.

* Tian Xin Hao

The Cha Qi had a rhythm that was wavy, causing coldness as the pores of the body opened. The Qi was delicate, yet penetrative. It reached through the inside of the body rather than remaining on the surface. It gradually spread out until the whole body was open. This then lasted for several hours.

* Bi Nian Hong Zhi (100-year-old loose leaf Puerh)

This tea had a slight fragrance of fruit. The Cha Qi was harmonious - seemingly Yin and Yang at different times. The Yang sometimes burst into the forehead like a volcanic eruption, pouring over the rest of the body; and the Yin other times felt like I was floating gently with my cars just below the surface of the ocean - silence deep and endless.

* Tong Xin Hao

In the beginning, the Cha Qi rose upwards in spirals. Later on in the session it spread to the limbs and poured out of me. It turned around the acupuncture point called "Gao Mang" repeatedly. And it left behind a cool feeling there. This then spread to the whole body. It was very peaceful.

A complete experience of any tea must involve fragrance, liquor, taste, sensation in the mouth and throat (cha yun) and Cha Qi. The Cha Qi is often discussed less amongst tea connoisseurs who appreciate it because it is more subjective. However, after years of drinking tea quietly and then comparing notes afterwards, some experts have found that certain patterns emerge. All of the other aspects are affected by the constitution of the tea drinker as well. Some tea lovers may feel intimidated by the notions of Cha Qi and think that it is something "mystical" or unapproachable to the ordinary person. I also once felt this way. However, Cha Qi is as perceptible as any other gross sensation like heat, pain, itchiness, etc. It is a tangible and real movement of subatomic particles or energy through the body. Perhaps this vibration is always there and the tea only serves to increase our sensitivity; or maybe the tea stimulates the movement - whatever the case, Cha Qi is more than theory for those, like me, that have felt it concretely.

Since ancient times, Chinese medicine has focused on the movement of Qi through the body and stipulated that illnesses are often caused by the obstruction of this flow in a certain portion of the body. Acupuncture is a healing technique meant to release these blockages. The fact that Cha Qi can also pass through the body so fluently means that it too has a similar healing power. Thus by appreciating good tea in quiet one is in effect cleansing the body, making it a proper vessel through which Qi flows. Through its arched gateway, we may return to a time before all of the external stimuli of televisions and computers - a time when people knew themselves better. By drinking tea in quiet and focusing on the flow of Cha Qi we can return to our souls, riding the windy currents within ourselves to the "abode of the immortals" Lu Tong spoke of so long ago.