On a late September morning in Providence, Rhode Island, around 20 yoga students broke from practicing handstands to watch Raghunath demonstrate a sequence of poses. He reached his arms up and backward, inhaling audibly, then dropped back into a full wheel on the exhale; from the backbend, he rocked into his palms and can-canned both feet overhead, floating into a handstand; then he lowered his legs, toes pointed, through a pike, finally touching down in a full forward fold. “Damn,” sighed one of the studio’s senior teachers, who was taking the class. Raghunath sprung upright. “Okay!” he said, clapping his hands twice. “Who wants to try?”
At 48, Raghunath moves with the fluid certainty of a Slinky falling down stairs. During the two-hour Flight School—his signature inversion-focused devotion-fueled workshop—Raghunath taught handstand 10 different ways, performing each variation with hypnotic control. Between demonstrations he paced between mats, offering physical assists and chattering about philosophy.
After class, Raghunath and I spoke on the phone as he drove south on I-93 to teach two more workshops in Boston. “Truthfully, if they just want to learn acrobatics and jumping around, I’m fine with that,” he says. But handstands are ultimately beside the point. “I use the asana as bait to get people to higher things,” he says. “What’s the higher thing? That we’re part of something bigger. And we have to learn how to control our minds.” Accordingly, Raghunath begins and ends his classes with guided meditation, mantra, and chanting accompanied by harmonium and his own voice.
Demand for Flight School has been consistent since Raghunath moved from Los Angeles to Manhattan in 2008, where his classes became something of an institution at elite studios. Known for his extreme poses and intense charisma, Raghunath built a following of teachers and inversion-junkies described in a 2012 New York Times profile as “cultlike.” So beloved was Raghunath that when he left Manhattan three years ago, one lifestyle website compared his departure to “Derek Jeter…leaving the city to step out of the limelight.” (In fact, Raghunath had moved upstate with his wife, Bridget, also a yoga teacher, to raise their kids closer to nature).
Part of what makes Raghunath so appealing is his origin story, which reads like a mythology of the modern guru. Born Raymond Cappo to a socially conservative family in Connecticut, he moved after high school to the Lower East Side, where he found work at a vegetarian restaurant called Ahimsa—a Sanskrit word meaning “nonviolence” that denotes one of the five yamas, or ethical precepts, of yoga. At 19, he stopped eating meat; the manager of a new age bookstore turned him onto Ayurvedic nutrition and the sacred Hindu scripture the Bhagavad-Gita. He began taking yoga classes in 1987, studying with Sri Dharma Mittra and unrolling his mat next to Jivamukti’s Sharon Gannon at Swami Satchitananda’s Integral Yoga Institute.
It wasn’t long before Cappo, who’d grown up studying violin and trumpet and had played in bands in high school, got involved in the Lower East Side’s hardcore punk scene. Even as a teenager, he knew he wanted to reach people. “I was already very intrigued with metaphysics and Eastern thought, and I really appreciated spirituality,” he says. “I wanted to write about substantial things, because I knew that substantial lyrics stood the test of time.” He found a platform as the lead singer and songwriter of Youth of Today, releasing three albums between 1985 and 1988, touring internationally, and founding the punk label Revelation Records.
“People say punk rock and they think of the Sex Pistols. But our following—tens of thousands of kids—were vegetarians,” Cappo explains. “We didn’t drink, we didn’t smoke, we believed in positive mental attitudes.” As part of the straight edge movement, Cappo’s music promoted social activism and a politics of radical tolerance. The 1988 video for Youth of Today’s pro-veg anthem “No More,” for example, cuts between a radiantly young Cappo yelling and fist-pumping in cargo shorts and shots of a pig being stabbed (predating fellow musician-yogi Adam Levine’s recent, bloody romp in Maroon 5’s “Animal” by two-and-a-half decades).
At 22, Cappo says he received a “strong spiritual calling” after his father passed away suddenly. Burned-out and grieving, he left the band to travel to India. “I had a lack of faith in material culture. Not that I couldn’t get money, but that it was actually fortunate to have money,” he says. Cappo found relief in brahmacharya, the Hindu practice of celibate monkhood, while living at an ashram devoted to bhakti yoga and the deity Krishna.
People say punk rock and they think of the Sex Pistols. But our following—tens of thousands of kids—were vegetarians
Through daily asana, meditation, and study of the ancient scriptures, Cappo began to refine his understanding of yogic philosophy. In his reading, the Bhagavad-Gita isn’t about renouncing material pleasures so much as “using what you have in a spiritual way. Utility is the principle,” Cappo says. “For example, is money good or bad? Money is just energy. You could use your money to be horrible and self-absorbed. Or you could use money for great things.”
At least, that’s what Cappo banked on when he returned to New York City and picked up the mic again in 1990. As the frontman of Shelter, Cappo helped establish a subgenre called krishnacore, a kind of devotional punk rock that melded hardcore’s high-energy noise with lyrics inspired by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (the “Hare Krishnas”). With Shelter, Cappo saw an opportunity to influence thousands of young fans who, like him, preferred to mosh to music with a positive message—here, a doctrine of radical acceptance and abstinence from meat, drugs, alcohol, and recreational sex.
Cappo would continue living as a monk for six and a half years, maintaining his asana and meditation practice (and self-imposed celibacy) while playing shows throughout the U.S., Europe, and South America. “We had a hit record in Brazil, we toured the world three times over, we were on MTV. It was one of those things that became bigger than I thought it was going to be. But because I did it with a different type of internal discipline, that same fame or popularity didn’t fry me.”
Regular trips to India helped, too. In 1991 in Vrindavan, a sacred village in the northern province of Uttar Pradesh, Cappo was christened Raghunath, a name invoking the supreme deity Vishnu. Two years later, in the same village, he received upanayana, the ritual sacred thread given to Hindu initiates to recognize the transfer of spiritual knowledge. As the ’90s petered out, so did American interest in krishnacore, prompting Raghunath to find other means of spreading his message. In 2002, a year after Shelter released its last album, Raghunath moved to Los Angeles, where he began teaching yoga and promoting a raw food lifestyle through workshops and cleanses.
While he retains the shaven head and inked-up limbs of his krishnacore days, Raghunath has softened considerably his overall vibe since leaving New York. “Because I had that time as a monk and really imbibed those teachings, fame—even within the yoga community—it doesn’t affect me,” he says. He still tours the world, leading yoga workshops and classes on nutrition and the practical applications of yogic philosophy, plus twice-yearly pilgrimages to India, where he guides small groups of yogis through the sacred sites and villages he’s visited since the ’80s.
But these days, he tries to spend as much time as possible at home with wife Brij and their five kids, who range from six months to 17 years old. “Family is incredibly grounding for me,” he says, going silent for the first time in half an hour. “I’m one of those people that could travel 365 days a year, just keep traveling and keep teaching because I love to teach so much. But I’d be a little bit ungrounded. So my family brings it back.” Now, after decades of self-searching, Raghunath treats his family with more reverence than he does gravity.
This spring, Raghunath and Brij will open their own yoga and meditation center on the grounds of their 11-acre property in East Chatham, New York. Called Super Soul Farm, the center will host public workshops, retreats, and 100- and 200-hour teacher trainings led by Raghunath, Brij, and invited teachers. The Farm has a creek, swim pond, and ample forests, plus a guesthouse and massive yoga studio, a converted three-bay garage. With no television or cell service, guests will be invited to spend their time as the Cappo clan does—reading, cooking, and working on outdoor projects. Recently, Raghunath and his kids built a composting toilet, and he says they opt for campfires and bedtime stories based on the Bhagavad-Gita instead of watching television.
For Raghunath, opening Super Soul Farm means a chance to share his life’s work with his children; it’s the next step he’s been waiting for. “I believe that a lot of our potential starts just with dreaming in your highest self,” he says, laying out his philosophy for a connected, successful life. “If you have some basic, strong direction of who you want to become and set that as an internal compass, then wherever you go in this world will always bring you there. I always knew I wanted to be surrounded by nature, I always knew I loved to teach, and I always knew I loved to learn. Generally when you love something, you’re good at it too.”
Cover Photo by Robert Sturman