It’s 8 A.M.
The bell rings softly, signaling the end of morning meditation. With a blanket draped over my shoulders and socks pulled up high, I rub my hands together then place them gently over my eyes, easing into the light of the day. The instructor leads a chant, 108 rounds as the mala beads slide delicately between his fingers.
“Today is devoted to Lakshmi, the Goddess of Abundance: the abundance of creation energy that formed each of us, the abundance of land we see out the windows of this lodge, the abundance of love that fills the room.”
Feet on a blanket, I slide back into plank, slowly lowering down and extending my hands out in front with my forehead to the ground; a morning sun salutation with an added pose and pause.
“Stop and breathe,” he says. “Think of something you are grateful for.”
Mother Earth, I’m grateful for you, I thought. Family. Friends. Earth, again, connecting with her warmth as I press my palms and the tops of my feet deep into the wooden floor.
Ninety minutes later, it’s time for Savasana, and in lieu of silence, we’re serenaded with the tender sounds of the harmonium and two voices from the front of the room. We sit up and slide closer, gathering around the altar, decorated with flowers and statues of Ganesha, Krishna, Shiva and Hanuman. We sing. We chant. We vibrate. We elevate.
This is day two of Nat Kendall’s Big Sky Bhakti Bliss retreat at The Feathered Pipe Ranch in Helena, MT. Kendall, a San Francisco-based yoga teacher and musician, has traveled the world with instructors like Rusty Wells and Janet Stone. But for his first solo yoga retreat, he returned to his Montana roots. “I know what it’s like to breathe in this fresh mountain air and to look at the Rockies, to be under this vast sky,” Kendall says. “I wanted to share that.”
The Feathered Pipe Ranch is no amateur to the yoga scene. In operation since 1975, it’s been the epicenter for yoga, spirituality and higher consciousness, hosting some of the most well-known teachers over the years: Seane Corne, Judith Hanson Lasater, Mary Dunn, Baxter Bell, Rodney Yee, Erich Schiffmann, and many more.
As yoga gains in popularity, the Ranch’s founder, India Supera, is committed to keeping its programs authentic, booking teachers who honor tradition and lineage. “We want to preserve the essence of the practice, the inner work that yoga provides,” says Supera. “The Ranch is a place where people can come to make changes in their lives, a place between the dawn and dusk. I always knew, but after 43 years, I see more clearly what this place does for people – and we will always find teachers who carry that on.”
Raised in Bozeman, MT, Kendall’s earliest memories are sitting in his father’s lap, listening to him sing and play guitar while his mother danced. He was a natural creative, learning guitar, keys and percussion instruments early on and attending Musicians Institute of Los Angeles followed by the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.
After school, Kendall played in a hip-hop band called Eightrack Mind for six years, opening for acts like The Wailers, Blackalicious, Wu Tang Clan and Michael Franti. His love for music continued to grow when he moved to San Francisco at the age of 30 and later worked as an audio producer and creative director for Pandora Internet Radio.
One winter, Kendall was visiting family in Montana and noticed the effect of the dry, cold weather on his body. He attended a yoga class at Montana Lotus Center, and as the saying goes: the rest is history.
“When we got to Savasana, it was euphoric,” Kendall remembers. “I’ve always been a spiritual being, and I knew from then on that I could take this practice anywhere and feel home.”
Kendall devoted himself to yoga and was a dedicated student for over five years when friends pointed him in the direction of Rusty Wells, a Bhakti teacher in the Bay Area. “Rusty brings the Bhakti – he brings music, spirituality, all the other aspects of the practice and weaves them together in a heart-centered community,” Kendall says. “I walked in and thought instantly – this is it. This is how I could unite music and yoga.”
In the following years, Kendall completed two teacher trainings with Wells and began assisting him as a musician and drummer at retreats across the globe. When Wells left San Francisco, Kendall found a teacher and mentor in Janet Stone and continues to support her trainings musically, expanding his repertoire to include harmonium; tabla, a set of Indian drums; djembe, an African drum; and dotara, a two-string lute instrument.
In true Bhakti fashion, attending Kendall’s classes guarantees several things. First, you will learn a new chant. Second, you will dance – even if that means snapping your fingers to the beat while holding Utkatasana. Third, you will leave with a smile, loving yourself a little bit more than you did before you came.
“Bhakti opens spirituality to many forms of God, different manifestations that bring out qualities and aspects that help reflect what’s going on in life,” says Kendall. “It’s a way of being devoted to the precise moment, seeing life for the miracle that it is.”
Throughout the week, Kendall’s teachings are laced with words like offer, receive, pray, gratitude – focusing more on the depth and devotion of the practice over specific alignments.
“People can unwind and explore their practice because it’s contained and we’re all here growing and evolving as a group,” Kendall says. “Yesterday, we chanted to Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. I asked people, ‘What are your obstacles? What holds you back?’ On retreat, it can be easier to find moments of self reflection, step away from our old patterns and use the stories of the Gods and Goddesses to learn about ourselves.”
Holly Purdy, a retreat guest from Kendall’s hometown, found the music, philosophy and asana to be a powerful combination. “Nat embodies love, kindness, compassion and awareness, and his way of teaching allows us to honor our individual paths,” says Purdy. “The retreat center was magical, meals were delicious and the yoga was made all the more wonderful by the help of yoga teacher, Peter Walters, who added his loving, healing touch throughout the week.”
Kendall currently lives on a 35-foot sailboat he dubbed Bhakti Boat, in Ballena Isle Marina, providing him personal sacred space in a bustling city. He packs up his instruments and drives into San Francisco, where he teaches at The Pad, Glow Yoga, Yoga Tree Stanyan and Outdoor Yoga SF at Baker Beach. Kendall will also be performing and teaching at Bhakti Fest West in Joshua Tree, CA and returning to The Feathered Pipe Ranch in 2018 for Big Sky Bhakti Bliss.
“Everything is in this cycle of birth, existence and transformation; I feel this in the prayers to the teachers, honoring Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the sustainer and Shiva, the destroyer,” Kendall says. “Me, my thoughts, my words, this retreat – none of it lasts. When you tap into that feeling of impermanence, you’re no longer sleep walking through life. I’m grateful for every moment.”