I became mindful of the ingredients, the weather, all the way down to the cup I used.

I learned self-care and mindfulness the hard way.

After I lost my father, I let 2 years of grief build up because I believed I was “too strong” for help. I couldn’t see how grief was affecting me.

I was tired. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was even losing my hair.

More trauma came in the spring with a home burglary, and it only exacerbated my health issues. I lost my appetite. My work suffered.

No matter how I tried, I kept sliding back into depression.

Grief becomes disease

A routine annual exam exposed dangerously low blood counts, setting off alarm bells and triggering more tests and visits with specialists.

I got iron infusions and tried to eat better, but nothing seemed to help. My grief had, as they say in my mother tongue Gujarati, “started to burn away my blood, my soul.”

After seeing no measurable improvements a year later, my doctor of 15 years had stern but caring words for me.

I wasn’t as strong as before. I need to be present for myself first. Self-care was not selfish.

She recommended a hysterectomy to correct my lifelong anemia and fibroids and give me the opportunity to, in her words, “live my best life.”

Her firm reminder to put me first was sobering, though as a self-employed South Asian mother, it felt culturally misaligned. I felt as though I was betraying my cultural identity if I didn’t put myself last.

In South Asian culture, grief, mental health, and women’s reproductive issues aren’t easily discussed topics. Women are expected to be supportive martyrs, resigned to giving up their careers and lives to the needs of their family.

The more I discussed it with family elders, the more these expectations became clear. But I had to think of my teenage daughter and how my actions would influence her life.

In December 2019, I made all the necessary arrangements and underwent the surgery. The road to recovery seemed near.

Turning inward

In January 2020, a friend recommended a guided group meditation, but my grief returned in the quiet moments of reflection.

In the absence of trained professionals or privacy of a consultation, buried layers of complex emotions aggressively came to the surface. These raw emotions added to my distress, and I began to get depressed again.

Discouraged, I left the group.

I burned the pages from my reflection journal to erase the traces of what I deemed my own failure. To seek my own path to wellness and happiness, I had to break out of this “all or nothing” mindset.

On one of those contemplative afternoons, I was reminded that I last felt soulful and happy while visiting tea estates in southern India 4 years prior.

The air had been crisp and perfumed by lush eucalyptus trees, the hills carpeted with tea. Tea pickers with stained fingers smiled at me, and the local markets were flush with fresh fruit, herbs, and spices.

My mother had come along and would surprise us with unexpected, spontaneous songs. I hadn’t heard her sing in decades.

We knew it wasn’t paradise, but perhaps the next closest place. Life was filled with calm moments and fresh perspectives. It was impossible to not stop and breathe freely. I felt myself exhale without worry.

In my grief and depression, I craved that more than ever.

I debated if my Georgia backyard could possibly sustain a few tea bushes, and maybe a few Ayurvedic herbs to help me along on my research of teas and brews.

Starting fresh

Just as the world shut down in March, four 1-year-old tea plants arrived from a southern Georgia nursery. Spring brought the promise of growth and an excuse to be outdoors.

I began to learn how to grow tea, read about the best times to harvest the leaves, and tried and failed at making my own oxidized tea leaves for a cup of “cha,” the Gujarati word for “chai.”

I stopped short of investing in a greenhouse.

Reading about teas prompted me to explore everyday herbs for brews.

I sought out mint, white sage, and lemongrass. I planted new turmeric and ginger rhizomes, fearing my old patch had died. I made tea from honeysuckle flowers that had escaped my eye before.

Nearly every part of that turmeric was beneficial. Its leaves made a fragrant tisane, and I used its rhizomes to make decadently aromatic ghrita, a medicinal ghee.

I became a less forgetful gardener, eagerly darting between the garden and my kitchen every day. I was delighted to see my neglected patch of turmeric rhizomes nearly double in size.

Two fragrant, old-fashioned rose bushes yielded more than 50 roses one summer day, enough to make a large jar of rose-petal candy for my teas. Its sweet, cooling qualities balance all doshas, or Ayurvedic constitutional types.

As a predominantly vata or wind type, food affects my moods and sense of well-being. I began paying even more attention to my diet, and turmeric ghrita became one of my favorite pantry additions.

When it was too hot to be outside, I read up on India’s culinary history around medicinal beverages, easy Ayurvedic brews, tea, and the history of chai.

Ayurveda can sometimes appear esoteric, but it isn’t. It’s all about balance.

I educated myself about how tea was grown and how the pandemic affected the growers. I paid more attention to seeing how climate influenced regional teas and brews in India.

For instance, Kashmiri Kahwa tea is made with the warming spice saffron. Yak butter tea, known as Tchaku cha, is made in the Himalayan region.

I even rediscovered a tea-less “tea” from India’s freedom movement that I had once read about in my grandfathers’ memoirs.

I saw how scores of other regional brews had escaped mention in cookbooks because they were hyper-local and not trendy enough. These regional brews were made a certain way to use the health benefits of the local spices.

My research contextualized the brews that my mother and grandmother had made me with care and attention as a child. I learned it was nuance, detail, and the relationship to culture that made exceptional teas and chais.

Throwing a handful of ingredients into hot water didn’t make a good brew. Tea deserved more of my time and attention than that.

The recipe for peace of mind

Tea-making during the pandemic also gave me back time previously lost to domestic responsibilities.

I got to take a break from chaperoning children, idling in parking lots waiting for school to end, getting lost in grocery store aisles to appease someone’s food craving, and road-trip vacations that were never quite as relaxing as we intended.

While the world chased bread flour and yeast or christened sourdough batters, I was reading about, growing, and brewing warm beverages from the bounty of my garden and my spice shelves.

On top of that, I was making time to have a cup to myself.

Ayurveda encourages a different kind of mindfulness. I had begun paying more attention to every detail that made my cup of tea special, engaging my senses in each aspect of its preparation.

I was mindful of the materials of my cooking utensils, the quality of ingredients, the weather, all the way down to the cup I used. Ayurveda recommends being mindful of it all, a form of meditation that involves actively participating.

I experienced a gentle transformation from the art of doing as I immersed myself in it all.

Coming back to me

Learning about Ayurveda, tea, and chai as separate and yet intertwined entities became the lesson in mindfulness I was seeking. Tea-making offered time for myself, the process becoming a sobering reminder of what I had once taken for granted: me.

I began 2020 looking for myself. I ended up finding what I needed in a cup of Ayurvedic tea.

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