(Ray Cappo then. Fronting Youth of Today at the legendary Anthrax club in Conn., 1987. Photo by Boiling Point ‘Zine.)
“I have a little platform where I can speak, just like in the band days,” Ray Cappo says. “The only difference is if no one likes you, they don’t whip bottles at your head.”
Cappo, longtime frontman for the influential hardcore punk bands Youth of Today and Shelter, is talking about his current profession, that of a yoga instructor. But the former straight edge evangelist and Krishna Consciousness devotee hones his heel hooks just as fervently as his sun salutations.
“For me, [jiu-jitsu] is therapy,” he says. “It’s just a mental release of all the anxiety in the mind.” While he earned his purple belt from Jean Jacques Machado in 2003, Cappo shed the gi and shifted his training to Eddie Bravo’s 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu in Los Angeles. Today, when not leading a class, a workshop, or exploring the bounds of human nutrition, the 44-year-old father and husband trains at Ronin Athletics near his New York City home. “I feel like I’m on a lifetime path with jiu-jitsu, and I’m still passionate about it,” he says.
Earning a black belt in some form of martial arts had been in Cappo’s bucket list for years, especially after he saw Royce Gracie’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu dominate the early UFCs. But back in 1996, the then-30-year-old Cappo thought himself too old to start that quest—until he heard motivational speaker Tony Robbins say otherwise. “He said, ‘Well it takes 10 years to get good at anything’…So I thought, What’s the difference if you’re 17 or 27? Or 21 to 31, or 40 to 50? It’s only 10 years.”
That same year, Cappo had a chance run-in with fellow New York hardcore veteran Harley Flanagan. “One day, I saw Harley wearing a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu T-shirt or something and I said, ‘Oh you know about jiu-jitsu?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah. I study with Renzo. You wanna come?’” Cappo got his first taste of the art on Gracie’s mats alongside two newly minted purple belts named Matt and Nick Serra.
But with Shelter and his other band, Better Than a Thousand, touring constantly, Cappo had to resign himself to training in bursts while on breaks from tour. “I was passionate about jiu-jitsu, but I traveled a lot. So I would train frantically when I was home and then I’d go away on tour for four months,” he says. To keep sharp on tour, Cappo would recruit roadies, band mates, and anyone else with a semblance of jiu-jitsu skill to roll on patches of grass whenever they had the chance.
After moving to the Los Angeles area in 1999, Cappo earned a blue belt under Renato Magno and then received his purple belt from Jean Jacques Machado in 2003. While at Machado’s academy, Cappo befriended Eddie Bravo, who also trained under Machado. When Bravo opened his own academy, Cappo—who, like Bravo, had grown tired of training in a gi—became a regular at his school.
It was an odd combination: one of the forefathers of straight edge hardcore training with a jiu-jitsu instructor who was unapologetically devoted to the joys of cannabis. Cappo’s abstinence from drugs and alcohol and his strict vegetarian diet made him the butt of playful jokes inside the academy. “I always felt secure in who I was, and I’m still very secure in that,” he says. “As far as Eddie goes, I felt like he had something pretty valuable, so I thought, I’m just a student and I’ll take what I want and don’t take the other stuff. And I think they respected me—if you put in so many mat hours, they have a type of respect for you as a cultured fighter.”
And once you get through Bravo’s veneer, Cappo says, it’s easy to realize he’s a wonderful instructor. “People think Eddie comes across as this party guy, and people say he’s arrogant, [but] he’s totally not. Everything he has, he gives away freely. The same with Jean-Jacques. They’re just not motivated by ego,” Cappo says.
(Ray Cappo now. Props to Lulu Lemon.)
As a seasoned yoga practitioner, Cappo possessed a degree of flexibility that was a natural fit for Bravo’s rubber guard system. By that point, Cappo had developed a peculiar open guard and a penchant for leg locks, bicep crushes, and a host of other relatively obscure submissions. Cappo trained six days a week, dipping his toes into the waters of MMA on the sixth day. “All week in jiu-jitsu I’d never get hurt, but that one day in MMA was just so brutal. I remember thinking, ‘Man, this is a short career life. How long can people do this to their body?’ But I will say it’s completely exhilarating and completely useful.” In 2003, he went so far as to take a training excursion to study Muay Thai in Thailand.
Today, after moving to upstate New York in 2008 and eventually returning to Manhattan in January of 2009, Cappo makes a living as a yoga instructor, teaching classes and leading workshops that focus on both the spiritual and physical aspects of the Vedic practice.
While performing yoga asanas and incorporating the practice’s deep breathing has far-reaching benefits, Cappo says it’s helped keep his body primed for grappling. “Even times where I haven’t trained for a long time where I was still practicing yoga, it just keeps you open, so it never hurts to come back. I mean, you have to refresh your moves and go through all that, but for the most part, yoga keeps you really open and protects you from injuries. And because you’re doing a lot of deep breathing, it keeps your endurance really powerful.”
Beyond his yoga practice, cleansing diets and juice fasts are key to Cappo’s lifestyle. “Cleansing is when you start putting really clean foods in the body, and the really clean foods, that’s the foundation of what you are. It’s like what your cells are made out of,” he says. “So if you’re healthy, you have to be healthy down to every bite you put into your mouth.”
The juice fasts have improved his stamina. In 2009, Cappo hiked the Grand Canyon with full backpacks while on a juice fast. At another point in the year, he went 21 consecutive days while drinking only fresh-squeezed juices. Eighteen days in, he says his body fat had nearly vanished and his endurance was at an all-time high. “You know how when jiu-jitsu class ends, and everybody’s completely wiped out, and there’s only two guys left on the mat? I remember being the last guy on the mat (on that eighteenth day), being like, ‘Anyone else wanna roll?’ My friend said, ‘Man, you’ve got a lot of energy today.’ And I said, ‘You’re not going to believe this, but I haven’t eaten in 18 days.” In 2010, he says he’d like to complete the New York City Marathon while in the midst of a juice fast.
This dietary regimen is, obviously, vastly different from the protein-heavy norm of combat sports nutrition. But Cappo defends it as a back-to-nature approach, where food comes from the earth, not laboratories. “I think Americans are hung up on this protein myth,” he says. “The fact is, before all these stupid protein powders were made—do you think we’re the only athletes in world history? Do you think we created fitness, that we’re on the cutting edge of fitness? We’re not.”
Cappo believes that the strict diet and the daily yoga are components to longevity and he hopes that his approach will help enable his body to continue the rigors of hard training into old age. And while the pursuit of a black belt has taken longer than the 10 years Tony Robbins ascribed, Cappo says age shouldn’t deter anyone. “I’m about to be 44. I encourage people just to start, just to do it,” Cappo says. “Because what’s the difference if you’re 44 or 54?”
Visit his website for more information about Cappo and his yoga workshops.