Vennly Leader Spotlight: Q&A with Chaplain Julia Khan

A community chaplain, worship curator and dedicated martial artist, Julia devotes her life to living into her authentic self. Her journey began more than thirty years ago when she first stepped foot onto the dojang (martial arts training hall) floor. Being one of only a handful of children didn’t dissuade her from the allure of the painted plywood floors and endless reps of bodyweight exercises. The development of the mind, body and spirit became her passion. Julia shares the lessons she learned through countless hours of practice and reflection the arts of Hapkido, Taekwondo and Kumdo. Earning an undergraduate degree in Sociology from the University of Southern California and a Masters of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, Julia’s academic pursuits center on connecting individuals to their true selves and to one another. Julia has served as the Minister to Youth & Families at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, as a worship leader at Common Ground, a farm-to-table dinner church, and as a Chaplain at Soldier On, a non-profit serving struggling and homeless military veterans.  Julia is a co-founder of the Athena Initiative, a social impact organization and incubator, and the Master Instructor at Do Shim Martial Arts.

Vennly: Something that you’ve spoken about is the need for individuals to “cultivate openness.” What exactly does this mean to you and what steps can individuals take to become more open? (or open-minded?)

Julia: Cultivating openness is an idea I have been chewing on for some time. It seems to me most people would like to think they are open: open minded, open to new experiences, open to difference and open to change. I would include myself in that category. Often, we describe ourselves as open even when we know deep down there are places in us that are not as open as we hope. We may think we have the diversity and inclusion thing down, but there is always room for growth. So, I like the notion that being open isn’t a once and done thing. It is a way of being in the world. I liken it to meditation. You don’t meditate once and then find everlasting peace; you have to keep returning to the practice to receive the benefits. Openness is the same. It must be cultivated. It can be cultivated through the letting go of one’s ego and attachments as well as by embracing continuous learning.

In my own life, this notion has called me to begin to do some deep work on the use of pronouns. As a lesbian cisgendered woman of color, I felt I was an open person, capable of making room for new ideas and new ways of being in the world without hesitation. I was wrong. I had some real hang-ups about using non-binary language such as they/them/theirs. Those hang ups were rooted in semantic tradition and a lack of openness to change in an area I previously viewed as static. Someone I care about in my life was hurt by this, and I was shown I have more work to do to cultivate openness. As a result, I’ve been exposing myself more and more to the stories and the lives of people who can open me up to a different viewpoint. In the end, my trans and gender non-conforming siblings are more important than my need to classify things within the grammatical framework I learned in elementary school.

Vennly: You are in the process of realizing a childhood dream of yours – opening a martial arts studio where you will be the Master Instructor. What led you down this path and how does it feel to see a lifelong goal come to fruition?

I pretty much decided when I was an eight-year-old yellow belt, I wanted to grow up and run my own school. Over the years, I have taught at a number of schools and martial arts programs. While all of them were meaningful to me, there is something to be said for being able to build a school rooted in the values that I hold most dear: community, spiritual development, mental fortitude, wellness, empowerment through self-defense and physical fitness grounded in scientific research. As I get closer to making this dream a reality, it isn’t lost on me that now more than ever the most vulnerable in our society (women, children, LGBTQ folks, people of color) need a space where they can develop the skills they need to feel safe, to feel empowered and to cultivate peace in this chaotic world. Thinking about how Do Shim Martial Arts can provide that space, alongside providing men a space to develop themselves outside of hypermasculinity, brings me a lot of joy and a deep sense that this is a significant part of what the Creator is calling me to do.

Vennly: In your Vennly Perspectives, you speak about overcoming gender biases in the martial arts. As a female master instructor, what is your advice to other girls and women who may have interest in exploring this sport?

Never give up. Tenacity leads to success. Martial arts are a personal journey done in community. How much your skills develop depends primarily on how committed you are to achieving your goals. Even if you don’t feel fully supported by the school or the gym you’re in, you can support yourself. Keep reading. Keep practicing. Keep moving forward because you are so much more than the obstacles in your way.

Vennly: For you, what is the connection between martial arts and spirituality?

I truly believe martial arts are an active form of spiritual practice. To me, spirituality is any method used to find a deeper understanding of the self, to seek a higher understanding of truth, and to connect with something greater than oneself. Martial arts are an active method for achieving these goals. They use physical techniques to quiet the mind and to still the spirit. In addition, martial arts are the ultimate mindfulness practice. Staying fully present in the moment requires the total harmonization of one’s body, mind and spirit. You experience in real time how to stay present and the joys of doing so. In martial arts, as in life, we must stay mindful (aware and present) in peaceful moments but also (and more importantly) in moments of discomfort.

This brief explanation just begins to scratch the surface of how spirituality connects to the martial arts. I could go on and on about the various principles and their connection to spiritual practice. I look forward to writing more and to creating more podcasts on this very important topic. For now, the place to get started using martial arts as a spiritual practice is with mindfulness/awareness. For those of us who have active minds or a high level of physical energy, active mindfulness helps to balance our energy and allows for the fertile ground needed to develop higher levels of consciousness.

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