The Topanga Tea Ceremony


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LOS ANGELES — A reasonable question one who has never attended a tea ceremony might have in advance of attending their very first tea ceremony is: What happens at a tea ceremony? But when I spoke on the phone with Baelyn Elspeth a week before she hosted a carefully planned “tea sit” in Topanga Canyon, she was cagey, and would only tell me that it would “feel formal.”

“All I have to say,” she said, “is that we’re going to gather together and drink tea.”

Ms. Elspeth, a 37-year-old former model, actress and dancer who now makes her living serving tea worldwide and “holding ceremonial space” for women, prefers for newcomers to go into their first ceremony without expectations. “Tea is a nurturing, beautiful, warming plant, and it can do all kinds of things,” she said. “It spans the spectrum. So for me to say, ‘This is what you can expect’? It robs you of an unlimited access to experience that you’d have otherwise.”

Ms. Elspeth is one of Los Angeles’s early tea ceremony adopters in certain and predominantly white wellness circles. She was introduced to it after what she calls an “amazing chain of serendipitous events”: Her neighbors in Venice Beach had gone traveling and they found themselves detoured in Bali, unable to travel to Japan because the Tōhoku earthquake had just hit, killing many thousands.

But someone in Thailand had shared a book with them called “The Way of Tea,” written by an American man named Aaron Fisher, who lived in Taiwan and had taken the name Wu De. They had corresponded. Wu De had offered an invitation if they ever found their way to Taiwan. So they ended up staying in Miaoli City and studying the lineage at his tea and Zen center, Tea Sage Hut, for two months.

They returned from Taiwan, naturally, with tea. Back in Venice, this duo lived a couple blocks from Ms. Elspeth and her partner at the time, the Incubus frontman Brandon Boyd. (Mr. Boyd and Ms. Elspeth no longer date, but they remain close.) “It was just this little group of us,” Ms. Elspeth recalled, “geeking out and drinking tea together.”

She found herself intrigued by the ritual. When Wu De made several trips to L.A. in the year and a half that followed, Ms. Elspeth participated in all of his ceremonies, eventually taking on a more formal role as one of his first students in the city.

“I’ve watched it over a decade just spread like wildfire,” Ms. Elspeth said. Mr. Boyd said he didn’t get the appeal at first. He said it felt like watching “a benevolent virus” spread across their L.A. communities.

“Tea was heading in one direction,” he said, “and then it got knocked towards Venice.”

Many of the women I met at tea ceremonies in L.A. said they had been brought into the fold by Ms. Elspeth. Her Instagram followers include the producer Diplo, the actress Kat Graham and the Moon Juice founder, Amanda Chantal Bacon. Paris Hilton frequently comments with heart-eyes emojis on Ms. Elspeth’s posts. As an actor, Ms. Elspeth worked as Baelyn Neff. “Nothing to talk about,” she said when I asked about her IMDB credits, which I found under that name. “A totally different life.”

She regularly takes study trips to Asia with Wu De and his other, longest-serving students, often with members of the community they’ve established through the Tea Sage Hut and “Global Tea Hut,” its monthly magazine and tea subscription service. In March 2013, on a trip to Taiwan, she was given the tea name Tien Wu, which she was told means “heavenly dance.”

Ms. Elspeth is lithe and elegant; her dancing background clearly informs the careful movements she makes while serving tea. In conversation, she is generous and thoughtful, if occasionally prone to floridity. Before we’d ever met, my first email to her bounced back with the most enviable and otherworldly out-of-office reply I’d ever seen: “Thank you so much for taking the time to connect,” it began. “I may be serving tea, on retreat, off in the forest, or on the other side of the world. Due to this flow of life and my continued desire to remain present unto it, it may take some time to receive a response. I will only be responding to those emails that required my direct attention so as to minimize my time exchanged with technology.

When I went to observe her serving at AY^AM, the tearoom, community space and storefront she shares with a creative partner, Jessica Kollar, on the wetlands in Playa Del Rey, our interview was momentarily waylaid when I asked her about “the space” we were sitting in.

“This space?” Ms. Elspeth replied.

“Yeah, the history of it,” I said.

“This space,” Ms. Elspeth said again, with uncertainty. I was asking about the physical space we were sitting in — the actual tearoom — and not the concept of “holding space,” which practitioners use to talk about being present and open for others. When that was cleared up, we were able to move on.

Credit…Magdalena Wosinska for The New York Times
Credit…Magdalena Wosinska for The New York Times

The first tea ceremony I attended was in early October in Topanga Canyon, under a large, shady tree on a private property off Route 27.

When I arrived, Ms. Elspeth sat cross-legged at its base. She had already arranged nine white seat cushions atop a tan woven rug, spread out in a neat semicircle. There was a brown mat directly in front of her, with a set of ceramic bowls to her left and a kettle on a brazier to her right. Somewhere, a Bluetooth speaker was stashed away and playing the kind of soft, dulcet melodies heard in expensive spas. There was an afternoon breeze and not a cloud in the sky.

The week prior, Ms. Elspeth had sent an email to the group — a collection of women who live in and around Topanga and who have found their way to meditation practices in recent years — with arrival instructions and an encouragement to wear “comfortable and natural fitting” clothes in “soft colors/earthy tones.”

“Our intention is to harmonize with the natural elements of nature that will be surrounding us,” she said. A little after 4 p.m., the women began to arrive in small groups, and everyone had heeded this request with care: There was a beautiful green jumpsuit, a dress that looked like a canvas bag with pockets but was somehow also flattering, and flowy, burnt orange balloon pants.

We took our spots on the cushions around Ms. Elspeth. She carefully picked up one ceramic bowl at a time, turned it in her hands (a sign of respect, she explained later, to deliver the bowl with the last untouched part of the rim facing the guest), and placed it on the mat in front of her in a line. First, she rinsed each bowl with water, which she later described as a “physical and energetic cleansing” for her guests to witness. Then she brewed the first pot of tea. She poured the first batch quickly down the line of bowls. It was the only part of the ceremony that seemed at all haphazard — like a bartender dumping a cocktail shaker into a row of shot glasses.

Ms. Elspeth then placed each bowl in front of its corresponding guest. The first time she did this, she made unsparing eye contact with everyone, and we each returned this gesture in some way. One woman clasped her hands together at her chest, another bowed slightly, others closed their eyes and nodded in silent, wincing gratitude. Once everyone had a bowl, we reached out with two hands and brought the tea to our grateful mouths. Some people smelled it, other people just let the vapors hit their pores. Finally, we took sips. It was hot and pleasant, and I tried to let it sit on my tongue as I would with a new glass of wine. But the flavor was, to me, as fleeting as the vapor. It tasted like hot water with something a little sour in it.

The bowls were collected, and another pot of tea was served. Ms. Elspeth repeated the process for five or six rounds of tea, or about an hour’s worth of pouring and receiving, sipping and sitting in silence. The light started to shift. When the final bowls were served, Ms. Elspeth asked everyone to share a brief reflection on the ceremony. Many said they were grateful for the “space” this exercise had afforded, the “energy” they felt being with their “sisters” and “tribe.”

We sat for a while and talked about tea until the afternoon light faded. A couple members of the group eventually broke off to free bleed in the property’s gardens.

Sibyl Buck, a yoga teacher, musician and former supermodel who was there (and, incidentally, has been credited with bringing grunge to the runway) said she moved to California from New York City about 11 years ago and has been seeking a respite from “a junk-food form of spending time together.”

“It’s not nourishing,” Ms. Buck said, when there’s “no intentionality around being together aside from what’s come to be called ‘fun,’ which a lot of times means some kind of annihilation of presence or obliteration of clarity together.” A tea ceremony, along with the other ceremonies she’d found herself participating in here in California — moon and cacao among them — represented something different, a more mindful way of spending time together. Here, she said, “we’re all collectively coming to our senses.”

Kate Shela, a British shamanic healer and movement teacher, said she remembered coming home from school in North London and hearing her mother with her friends, having tea. “They would go into the dining room,” she said, “and the door would be shut. And the circle of women would come together and would always be, I now realize, sharing secrets.”

The conversation here was expansive and contemplative, but it occasionally drifted in and out of lucidity for me. At one point, Ms. Elspeth explained that tea had helped her understand how her self was “harmonized with nature.”

“The way to do that is only to empty myself, like the center of the tea seed. So that in that infinite potential of emptiness, the form falls away and the formless blossoms into this dance of the elements. And I’m just this empty seed pouring the water and the water is the same water that’s flowing inside my body. We just get to have this expression of wholeness,” she said. “Everyone feels that in some way, shape or form.”

I had lost the thread on what she was saying, but it seemed to have resonated deeply. “The form falls away, and the formless blossoms,” Ms. Buck repeated softly.

Having a ceremony under an oak tree in Topanga Canyon alongside a handful of women who were once professionally beautiful is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but it’s not required for the practice.

I’d asked Ms. Elspeth over the phone whether or not she saw the wave of wellness exercises she lived and worked in — and specifically these ceremonies, which seemed like an opportunity to briefly sit in peace and quiet while the world burned — as a political reaction of sorts, and was met by a brief silence.

“I think that’s really based on each individual,” she said.

“We’re in a time where people are so toxic, toxically lonely,” Ms. Shela said. “We can see that with all the young men that are going out in this country and doing atrocious things in the name of God knows what. I think what everyone’s desperate for is intimacy. But you know what’ve we been doing here? Nothing! It’s been pointless.”

“If there is a point, that’s it!” Mr. Boyd said. “It’s amazing, and it’s pointless. It’s wonderfully pointless.” He explained that of all the meditations he’s tried in his life, tea was “trying to accomplish the least.” With other meditation practices, he found himself thinking, “I’m going to be a better person if I meditate.”

And I could see how this extended to other practices, like yoga or aerial arts — wellness exercises that also have the convenient side effect of making its practitioners look more wholesome and, well, hotter, often for the benefit of social media platforms. Sitting for tea didn’t seem to have any similar purpose, which is why I’d been so confused about it from the onset. I’d found myself waiting for a revelation while my legs cramped. That revelation never came.

“All we’re doing is sitting down and drinking tea,” Ms. Elspeth told me. “Some people would say it’s a complete waste of time.”


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