Yoga teacher and musician Raghunath bhakti LA YOGA

Portrait of Yoga Teacher and Bhakti Musician Raghunath by Susan Currie

I’m on the road to an afternoon of bhakti (the yoga of devotion) with the former punk rocker and once celibate monk known these days simply as Raghunath. He traverses the world as a yoga teacher and musician spreading his message of love and service. There is no corner of the globe to which he will not trek. It’s a full house at Repose Yoga and in the few minutes of prelude, I can already sense an approaching climate shift… the sun-filled studio pulses with a hushed anticipation as Raghunath quietly unpacks his harmonium.

“When love is behind the current, it’s bhakti.” So begins our immersion into a workshop that combines the devotional practices of singing and chanting with asana, breath, and meditation. I’m not surprised by Raghunath’s big personality given his storied background as a performer, but I was surprised by how he employs it to softly command the room. His direction is precise and his message unwavering, prompting at times a blend of fatigue, fear and, of course, reflection. Under his guidance, I felt held throughout.

Gin Evans, owner of Repose Yoga in Newburyport, Massachusetts (where the workshop I took was held) explains, “There’s something about when you bring a roomful of people together for a class or a workshop… any personal or social differences no longer matter, and there’s this coming together or union that magically occurs simply from either the opening ‘Om,’ or the chanting, or from the physical energy created by all the bodies in one room. Raghunath has an ability to make students feel happy, empowered, and positive about themselves. What better way to feel a sense of community than to leave a two hour workshop feeling blissful from the energy of others!”

Yoga Teacher Bhakti Guide Raghunath Tricia Gahagan LA YOGA

Raghunath photographed by Tricia Gahagan

From Joshua Tree to Brooklyn to the banks of the Ganges, on any given day you might find Raghunath (often called Raghu) sharing the wisdom he has earned through the arc of his life. Whether on tour supporting his debut CD (Krishna Kirtan: Music as Meditation), leading his popular bhakti immersions, or traveling with students through the holy cities of India, his work is rooted in universal love.

Raghu enjoyed early commercial success as a professional musician, yet the pitfalls of that fame remain tattooed to his heart and soul. Popularity is not what fuels his present-day life on the road. Rather, bhakti guides his generosity of time and spirit. Bhakti, the Sanskrit term derived from the root “bhaj” which means to “divide, share, partake”, is often translated in our modern world as “devotion” or “love.” First introduced to the concept during in his teenage years, it is now the guiding principle of Raghu’s life. “A living tunnel to an ancient world” is one of the many ways in which he unpacks the term bhakti in conversation.

His story begins in the 1970s outside of New York City in the quiet suburb of Danbury, Connecticut. Growing up Ray Cappo as the sixth of seven children in an Italian American (and Catholic) home, from his early childhood Raghunath felt a deep longing for something that fueled his homegrown and evolving spiritual path. Seeking more than the mainstream music coming through on FM radio and answers to the deeper questions, he made his way to New York City as a young teen. In Manhattan’s Lower East Side (known at that time for its excess), a new world was revealed. Insane, reckless and crazy are just a handful of the adjectives Raghu uses to detail the scene as it unfolded in his eighth-grade eyes. The punk rock movement was driven by a culture of drugs and hardcore living. Despite his emergence as the lead singer and songwriter of the punk band Youth of Today, he rejected that pervasive culture. While he embraced his contemporaries’ leaning away from mainstream music, he could not embrace the decadence of their lifestyle. “It was heartbreaking. I saw a bunch of kids addicted to heroin, huffing glue, committing suicide, smoking angel dust. In the name of being alternative, they were going down a dead-end street. I feel blessed to have had the good insight or karma to not follow.”

Yoga Teacher Musician Raghunath Bhakti LA Yoga

Raghunath when he was in his Youth of Today/Straight Edge Movement days. Photo by Ian Harper.

He attributes that pivot to an inner compass for clean living (organic threads which pulsed since childhood). Raghu was also getting a taste of what he now knows as bhakti through observing the rituals and offerings shared publicly by the Krishna devotees in and around Thompson Square Park. Although yoga had not yet exploded onto the scene in New York City, he was introduced to the practice through the (now defunct) Ahimsa Cafe, a health restaurant at the corner of East 9th Street, where he worked at the time. He was swiftly consumed by the ancient eight-limbed tradition.

Buoyed by spiritual influences and his inner compass, these formative years found Raghunath championing alternatives through song. He discovered the Bhagavad Gita; taking inspiration from the Gita’s call for selfless action he began to pen words and music. As Straight Edge’s star rose they used fame to spearhead movements including vegetarianism and animal rights while denouncing intoxication. Peter Singer’s 1975 classic Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals inspired Raghu’s call to vegetarianism.

Youth of Today’s words and music struck a chord and delivered them to a level of success they had not envisioned. As the story often goes, that elevation came with a price. Raghunath became restless and disillusioned as he paused to consider his deeper intentions and question this life of fame. Greed, competition, striving and envy began to school Raghu in what he refers to as “material cynicism.” He set out on a path of deeper inquiry – exploring best practices for channeling his artistic talents, what he refers to as shakti. Again, he turned to the Vedic literature and sacred teachings.

Yoga Teacher Musician Raghunath Bhakti LA YOGA

Bhakti Guide, Musician and Yoga Teacher Raghunath photographed by Tricia Gahagan

In this introspection Raghunath came to the understandings that now deeply fuel his teachings. He refers to it as a dawn. “I came to the realization that our shakti is on loan to us. You take what you’ve got in terms of your gifts and you give it back in service—in a spiritual way. Yoga, music or otherwise … it’s not about being the object of praise. The sharing of our individual gifts should be pushed by a genuine concern for others. Otherwise, it’s all just a performance. In everything we do, love should be the current.” There was no looking back.

The next 10 years were marked by discovery and ongoing explorations, Ayurveda, yoga and a vegetarian lifestyle. He spent much of his late twenties and early thirties living the life of a celibate monk traveling back and forth to ashrams in India and the US. While these contemplative years were marked by intensive study, they also included music. With newfound intention to spread the good word of the Gita, Raghu patched together a band comprised of fellow monks who engaged audiences far and wide. Practicing yoga, leading kirtan, immersed in bhakti and living clean … this life agreed with him.

Yoga Teacher Bhakti Musician Raghunath Tricia Gahagan LA YOGA

Raghunath photographed by Tricia Gahagan

His story then entered another chapter. Heeding the unsolicited advice of an older monk he met, Raghunath found himself in a time of deep introspection, considering how his present reality of a strict ashram existence would eliminate marriage and a family. In his mid-thirties, he made a choice to include a partner and family while maintaining his passion for teaching — a passion not just for leading asana, but for spreading bhakti.

Motion is a word that comes to mind as I reflect on my personal experience in Raghu’s workshop. Dialogue is flowing, music and chanting is weaved in. Raghunath himself is perpetually drifting the sea of mats connecting seamlessly. As our practice unfolds I am struck by the quick and easy manner of his greeting—as though we have of course met somewhere before and are now all simply reacquainting. At one point after pitching us a particularly clever sequence he asks, “Are you ready to accept this mission?” Despite some chuckling, his plans clearly do not include the use of the word “no.” Another Raghu student, yoga instructor Sandy Snyder, summed it up rather perfectly, “Each time I take a class with Raghunath I either want to burst out in tears, confront something, or laugh my butt off. He has a way of provoking very strong shifts.”

Yoga Teacher Bhakti Musician Raghunath Tricia Gahagan Susan Currie LA YOGA

Raghunath photographed by Tricia Gahagan

One of his favorite avenues for sharing bhakti is through his ongoing pilgrimages to India. His prerequisite for travel is that participants tour like pilgrims in a “spirit of humility.” Raghu’s own early expeditions through India were humble and with an air of “prospectors seeking to uncover the bounty of hidden gems.” It’s an intention he found powerful and one to which he continues to cling as he now wears the cap of leader. A typical Raghu pilgrimage consists of a party of 14 – 30 kindred spirits seeking transformation on some level. Over a two week stay each day is spent in asana practice, in meditation, and in song. A bhakti narrative is peppered throughout.

As we bid farewell I am curious to know what’s next for Raghu. It’s a 120 or so mile drive back to his home in upstate New York where he resides with his wife of 13 years Brij – a partner with whom he shares a deep yogic and spiritual sensibility. Together they have created five children and also the Supersoul Farm in Albany, which is in the midst of hosting its inaugural 200-hour teacher training program and will also sponsor 500-hour teacher trainings in India. Under this roof, Raghunath is “Dad.” It is in this setting that he refuels. Most mornings find him ferrying his young children to the local Waldorf School on a 400 acre farm where they share the campus with sheep and chickens. Raghunath recalls how he was fortunate to enjoy a healthy dose of nature growing up. He speaks of a love of Thoreau and Emerson and how nature has been “calling him back loudly” these days.

Ever seeking, he also keeps current under the guidance of his longtime spiritual teacher Radhanath Swami – he is never without his 2010 book The Journey Home. Turning up the volume for one last lesson, he signs off with, “I am convinced the best thing you can do for your health is take off your shoes and walk in the forest and breathe. Before you start shoving a bunch of herbs in your mouth, take off your shoes and walk in the forest.” While he continues to enjoy the platform of the big stages, it’s his family that now takes priority. It’s a long way from the club scene of the East Village and the solemnity of life in an ashram, but it is home, where love is forever feeding the current.

For more information about Raghunath, his pilgrimages and teacher trainings visit: raghunath.org or supersoulyoga.com.

For more information about Repose Yoga visit: reposeyogastudio.com

Tricia Gahagan is a fine art photographer whose work can be found at triciagahagan.com.

 

Susan Currie is a Boston-based photographer, writer, and yoga instructor and Managing Editor at Boston Yoga Magazine. Her new collection of poetic verse and images, Once Divided (Shanti Arts), is now available in wide release.