This week’s Portrait is a man of many skills. A master’s-level, licensed clinical independent social worker with a private practice in Bucks County, he also has a healing center in Asbury Park, N.J. Manjot Singh Khalsa is also an ordained interfaith minister, Reiki master, advanced Shamanic practitioner and Kundalini yoga and meditation teacher, as well as a member of NASW, ISSTD, WPATH and ACFE. I don’t even know what they mean, but they sound good.
PGN: I’m a little groggy because some crazy person called me at 5:45 this morning about our interview. [Laughs] You’re lucky we’re not meeting in person or I’d pull your beard!
MSK: Text! It was a text. So sorry. I was finished Sadhana and didn’t think it would bother you.
PGN: What is Sadhana?
MSK: The start of the day is during the ambrosial hours; those are the hours usually around 3 or 4 a.m. when the rest of the world is quiet. As Sikhs, we believe it’s a perfect time for a connection between ourselves and the divine. There’s a series of morning prayers and then a yoga portion and then Aquarian chants, which are meditative mantras. In Kundalini yoga, we believe that it is the best way to start a day and that a regular Sadhana practice will create a huge shift in your life.
PGN: Wow, and you do all that every day!
MSK: Yeah, the belief is that we should give 10 percent of everything to God, including our time. So if we give the first two-and-a-half hours of the day to God, the rest of the day is ours to do with what we will. Just like we believe in dasvandh, which in other religious traditions is called tithing. We too believe that 10 percent should be given to God and the Dharma or the Sikhs.
PGN: Give me a little about your background, your life before you were getting up at 3 a.m. Was the family conservative, liberal?
MSK: I was raised in Bucks County in a fairly conservative family and community. Probably the most liberal thing my parents ever did was to put an Obama sign in their front yard when my wife, our son and I were campaigning for him. I was surprised to find out they were pro-Obama.
PGN: What were some of your favorite activities as a kid?
MSK: I was heavily involved in Girl Scouts. I liked camping, racing canoes and bicycles. We traveled a lot; we went to Europe and Mexico. I was semi-athletic, so I was on the softball team and in a bowling league. And I’ve always been clear since an early age that I was put here to serve others.
PGN: What faith were you raised in?
MSK: That’s a good question. Loosely Catholic — church on high holidays only — and then my mother married a Lutheran and we went to his church on Saturdays for German school to learn the language. It was a very informal, quasi-religious upbringing. When I was a teenager, I did my own religious exploration, volunteering at local vacation Bible schools and various Christian churches, visiting synagogues with friends, etc. Then from about 18 on, I more seriously investigated a myriad of religious traditions and in 2004 I was ordained as an interfaith minister. I then found my way to Sikhism through Kundalini yoga and meditation. It’s a form of yoga based on Sikh teachings. It was started by Yogi Bhajan, who brought it to the West. There’s a lot of good information about it at 3HO.org. The 3 Hs stand for healthy, happy, holy.
PGN: What was the family’s reaction to your spiritual quest?
MSK: My mother died of a massive heart attack 11 days before my 40th birthday and I had not converted to Sikhism at that point. My spiritual meanderings weren’t a problem; she believed in God but since she didn’t attend a specific church, she never verbalized anything about it. Her husband never verbalized much about anything but a poignant moment was at my mother’s funeral when I delivered the eulogy in the Catholic Church where I was baptized and she received Confirmation and was married. Catholic priests usually do not share their pulpits, but lo and behold, I was allowed to co-officiate the Mass. It was pretty radical for them.
PGN: Where did you go for higher ed?
MSK: I went to Temple for undergraduate and graduate school. I planned to major in English and go to law school but then I was in a serious car accident and almost died. It really made me rethink things and I decided I wanted to go back to being of service and got my master’s in clinical social work and social administration. I ran nonprofit programs for many years. I ran a program for seniors, I started the first youth shelter in Philadelphia and I ran a managed-care program among other things. Now I’m doing doctorate work in nutrition and natural health and hygiene.
PGN: Tell me a little of what you do.
MSK: I’m a licensed clinical social worker and I’ve been in private practice since 1996. I have a healing center in Bucks County and one in Asbury Park, N.J. I work now primarily as a psychotherapist and currently I have about 80 active clients. In addition to the psychotherapy, we offer the modalities such as life coaching, yoga, meditation, Shamanic healing, energy work. We also offer retreats and fasting programs. My areas of specialization include sexual and gender identity, trauma and dissociative-identity disorder and holistic healing. I work with clients who struggle with depression, anxiety, anger management and relationship issues. I work with couples and families to assist in developing healthy, happy, functioning relationships. We focus on body, mind, spirit.
PGN: Why were you doing so much soul searching as a teen?
MSK: I think I always felt connected to spirit, to the unseen, to the divine. Since I didn’t have structure to find that at home, I felt pulled to discover it myself.
PGN: I read that you described yourself as being pretty femme before transitioning.
MSK: It’s interesting: When I was very young I was more of a tomboy or perhaps gender-queer but it didn’t last long. I was active after that, but with a girlish exterior and then later I became very high-femme for quite some time!
PGN: When did you begin to explore your authentic self?
MSK: I identified first as a straight female, then as a bisexual female, then a lesbian, then two-spirit, queer and now, even though I’m in a monogamous heterosexual marriage to a female, we both identify as queer.
PGN: You just wanted to claim the whole alphabet.
MSK: Clearly! And I’ve ended up male-identified but maintaining a queer identity.
PGN: What were some of the high and low points of your journey?
MSK: Not necessarily a low point, but I transitioned without telling my family. I’ve always had primary physical custody of our son, but during the custody battle, the trans matter became an issue. I had to really fight. My son is 22 and next month I’ll finally be finished paying for the legal expenses incurred. Speaking of transitioning, can you hang on while I move inside? [After a moment] Sorry, my garage tenant drove up. He does not know that I’m a trans man. He’s a very nice guy and mows our lawn and rents the garage, but he does have a Trump sticker on his truck. I wouldn’t lie if asked, but I’d rather avoid the conversation if it’s not necessary. [Laughs] He was freaked out enough thinking that I’m Muslim.
PGN: Do you mind if I keep that in?
MSK: Include it all! Maybe I’ll leave the column in the driveway for him. Back to low points, I’d say that in-between time when the identification didn’t match the physiology, trying to figure out what to do at work. There was a house fire that wasn’t related to me being trans, but it happened at the same time as me transitioning, which added another challenge. High points: everything I do now because I’m always being authentic to myself. In Sikhism, we greet each other and depart by saying, “Sat naam.” “Sat” means “truth” and “naam” means “name.” Truth is the name. It’s an edict that I live by.
PGN: How does Sikhism fare on LGBT issues?
MSK: That’s a good question. Western Sikhism is very inclusive. We just had a gathering in New Mexico to celebrate Summer Solstice and I was a part of the LGBTQ Rainbow group there. We were working on educating the larger community of Sikhs on LGBTQ issues. Those of us who have received Amrit, or baptism, are known as Khalsa, “the pure ones,” and we will be presenting a video to the Khalsa’s council. It will say, “Here we are, your siblings of destiny.” It’s only been recently that there’s been consideration for same-sex marriages so we’re trying to expand from there. In Eastern Sikhism, Punjab Sikhism, they’re much more conservative. An interesting thing is that in Kundalini yoga, the instructors must take the oath each session, “I am not a man, I am not a woman, I am not a person, I am not myself, I am a teacher.”
PGN: As an American Sikh, do you worry about appropriation?
MSK: No, because nothing is being appropriated. Yogi Bhajan came from India to oversee Sikhism in the West. I went before a council to receive Amrit and have to live by particular guidelines, to live by a particular Dharma. I can’t leave my house with my head uncovered, I can never cut my hair, I have to wear particular ornaments, I have to wear a certain type of underwear, I cannot have sex outside of marriage, I can never drink alcohol or do drugs, I can never eat meat or eggs. It’s a true commitment. It’s not something you just try on. Anyone who is called is believed to have had the destination written on their foreheads. Whether you’re pink, purple or something in between, Guru gave the dictate that if it calls you, you go. It’s a beautiful blessing.
PGN: I thought that Mormons are the only ones with special underwear.
MSK: Nope! And it’s interesting, many Indians, or Punjab, assume that I’m Indian but light-skinned.
PGN: Tell me about your immediate family.
MSK: My wife’s from Sweden; we’ve been together since 2004, married in 2006. We have a 22-year-old son who’s just finishing up at Drexel and is doing a co-op at a recording studio here in Asbury. So he’ll officially graduate in September, and we have a 2-and-a-half-year-old. It’s quite a gap, but we do what we’re instructed to do by God and He spoke to my wife and said that she needed to have a baby. So we chose a known donor and made it happen. She actually met the spirit of that child before it was born and the child gave her the information about why it needed to come through at this time, and gave us its name! It’s funny, the midwife told us to be prepared because it could be a difficult conception and birth and we said, “No, it’ll be fine because we’re doing what we were guided to do.” My wife’s never been pregnant before but it took only one insemination and nine months later the baby was here.
PGN: [Laughs] You didn’t say, “Hey big guy, couldn’t you have thought of this 15 years ago?”
MSK: Yeah! But you gotta do what you gotta do. It wasn’t part of our plan, but I’m so grateful and blessed. My daughter is everything.
PGN: What are some of your curricular activities?
MSK: We travel all the time; sometimes it feels like we’re gone more than we’re here. We live eight blocks from the beach so we’re there all the time too. I love to do yoga and meditation even when I’m not teaching — any activities that raise my vibration. I’ve been engaged in a lot of self-care recently and actually lost 70 pounds in the last two years.
PGN: How would your wife describe you?
MSK: Oh! Hmmm … Driven, committed, spiritual. Someone who can manifest whatever we desire guided by God, and an awesome parent.
PGN: If there was a holiday in your honor, what would it celebrate?
PGN: Genre of music people would be surprised that you listen to?
MSK: Well, my son’s a hip-hop artist and producer, so while I’m not well-versed in the field, he’ll play his music for me and ask for my feedback. Particularly if there are themes about social justice in the lyrics.
PGN: What’s next for you?
MSK: We’re leaving the country next year. We made the decision before the elections to move out of the country but the current political situation makes it even easier. Why would we continue to subject ourselves to this climate? Why would we raise a toddler in it? Our children are both children of color — they’re biracial — and I walk around with a turban and people assume I’m a follower of Islam. In Asbury Park, it’s not a problem; we’re very diverse — economically, socially and racially. There’s a mosque right on my corner and rainbow flags everywhere. In fact, we were just rated the “number-one coolest small town in America.” But outside of here, who knows?
PGN: Three people you’d love to see in your meditation class?
MSK: If they don’t have to be living … Yogi Bhajan, Guru Ram Das and Guru Nanak. I’d love to sit in meditation with them.
PGN: [Laughs] Not Trump? I’d think he could use it most of all.
MSK: Ya know, as yogis and in Sikhism, we’ve been preparing for these times. We believe we’re in the Aquarian age and everything is unfolding as has been told it will. Everything is in due order, all things come from God, all things go to God and the arc will bend towards the light and the higher vibrations. All things will play out as it has been foretold.
PGN: So we’re going to be OK?
MSK: Well, some will be, some won’t be. Some will perceive that they are and some will think that they’re not. There’s always a dual — make that multi — sphere of realities. We shall all see where we land.