For. Every. Body.
Michelle Dionne-Nisbet has a mind for computers and a kind soul for everything else
Written By Michelle Lindstrom
Photos Supplied by Michelle Dionne-Nisbet
In a college architecture design course, the instructor asked my class to visualize an apple. And so the 25 or so of us did before some students were called upon to describe their apple. It was a simple exercise and we all thought that we knew the right answer. But we were very wrong. There wasn’t a “right” answer. It was all relative based on each and every student’s history. His or her own experiences, influences and biases. Students described shiny green Granny Smith apples all the way to reddish-yellow crab apples.
It was a lesson about listening to what your clients want, not what you think they want. But also in regular conversations, what seems to be the only obvious answer to you can be completely wrong to another person. That simple lesson stuck with me and I keep sharing it with others because it applies to so many scenarios and people.
Scenarios, like how yoga is taught, and hey, why not body types, too?
When you ask people to describe what a yoga class is like, most will include descriptors like quiet, intense, disciplined, difficult, and for thin, young, bendy people. The view and perception is very similar across the board because most people have shared a similar experience of yoga, or been told something of the sort by a friend. This is very different when compared to the apple scenario because people easily accept an apple has many shapes, sizes and colours from personal experience. Therefore, yoga to apples is definitely not apples to apples.
Maybe it’s time for that to change.
Michelle Dionne-Nisbet, 41, is a certified yoga instructor who lives on an acreage near Tofield, Alberta. An acreage her family has lived on for 11 years, six years more than any other home she’s ever lived in, and she’s feeling the itch to move. The itch is justified partially because her daughter, the oldest of her two children, moved to Kelowna, British Columbia last fall for university and her son is talking of moving out soon as well.
Yoga was not something Dionne-Nisbet grew up wishing to be a part of her life or as a career choice. The two found each other when she was 23 years old with two young children, a husband who worked out of town a lot and a need to do something for herself. Her first introduction to the activity was in her local community league that offered babysitting while moms attended a class called “Big Stretch.” Yoga wasn’t a fad yet to use its namesake for the class.
“I remember thinking, ‘This feels amazing,’ ” Dionne-Nisbet says. Her body was recovering from the pregnancy of her son that forced her into bedrest for months incurring a lot of weight gain. “It was just a great way to stretch the body and heal.”
She connected with the activity and continued to practice yoga on her own and in studios.
As her children got a bit older, Dionne-Nisbet looked for work as an outlet and to interact with more adults. She applied and was interviewed for the Edmonton Sun distribution department.
“I wanted the job so bad that I lied and said I went to school to learn their green-screen system.” Dionne-Nisbet says, adding that she felt the need to fight a stereotype. “It was that typical, ‘Oh ya, that girl who had a baby young and didn’t go to university – she must be stupid.’ ”
Luckily for her, she really does have an inherent knack for computers because she was hired and did in fact figure out their program within an hour of fiddling with the commands. “I don’t have a degree, but I have a brain that understands computers,” she says.
Months passed and she moved up into a managerial role but by a year-and-a-half in the job, her right knee caused her enough pain to affect her work.
As a teen, Dionne-Nisbet was very active and sustained a serious knee injury during a soccer game but didn’t get the damage checked out. “At that age – you’re young, you’re stupid and think, ‘I’m not getting any help, just put a Bandaid on it and get me back on the field,’ ” she says. “What I didn’t realize is that if the damage had been fixed then, it would not have followed me.”
Roughly 15 years later, the pain was so bad at work that she needed the help of a cane to walk. And after many doctor’s visits, it was confirmed that surgery was required. “My knee cap started to fall off to the side,” she explains.
Her recovery included six months in a full-leg splint affecting her general mobility but also her ability to drive since it was her right leg all bound up. She tried to continue back at the Sun’s office in a part-time capacity but it became too complicated and she had to leave on good terms.
“I really loved that job,” she says, but her focus needed to be on her recovery.
A boost in determination was given when her doctors told her post-surgery that she would not walk properly again, or run, or do yoga.
Dionne-Nisbet remembers thinking, “I’m going to prove you wrong. You should never tell me what I can’t do.”
And so, her commitment to yoga grew even stronger. “I also started to really watch how people were moving and when you do that, you can see when there’s pain in the body like when their teeth grit, the lines form in their face, muscles tense or they hold their breath,” she says.
As she practiced yoga on her own and healed, her uncle suggested she work in the trucking industry with him since his company needed someone to work on their computer system. She got the job and turned what was supposed to be a part-time position, into a full-time, 60-hour-per-week administrative manager responsible for whole group of companies fleet services. “It allowed me to travel to the States where the computer systems programmers lived down in North Carolina,” Dionne-Nisbet says. “I tried different yogas wherever I went and this yoga thing just kept coming back in my life.”
One of her yoga instructors in Sherwood Park, Alberta – Gerda Krebs – suggested she look into becoming an instructor, something Dionne-Nisbet never considered before. Krebs told Dionne-Nisbet she would be a role model for yoga students because she came into it with a broken body, listened to it and used her body to help heal itself. That first-hand experience, Krebs told her, is not something a lot of instructors have to empathize with a student when he or she says, “I’m in pain. Can yoga help?”
“We’re making it that people are pushing themselves beyond their limits to accomplish things that potentially their bodies can’t or are not yet ready to do.”
But becoming an instructor would mean standing in front of a group of people and talking. In the past, this was impossible for Dionne-Nisbet to do. “I was so shy in school that teachers and my mom knew that if there was a day I had to present something to the class, I was either going to be sick or pretend to go to school, get off the bus two stops down, walk back home and hide out in the yard until my mom went to work. I was petrified,” she says.
She was intrigued by Yoga instruction though because she questioned what was going on with this “fad”?
“There’s a certain idea of what yoga looks like: These thin, young, people moving fluidly who can do crazy poses that for most people are not attainable,” she says. “We’re making it that people are pushing themselves beyond their limits to accomplish things that potentially their bodies can’t or are not yet ready to do.”
But the universe had another test for Dionne-Nisbet to put her yoga instruction interest on hold. Her husband, Don Nisbet, almost lost his left arm from a grinder accident at home a few weeks before her training was to begin.
“My life stopped because he needed help,” Dionne-Nisbet recalls. “It required major surgery, physio and reconstruction and he needed me to be there.”
Dionne-Nisbet’s husband also generated the family’s main income, which put more emphasis on the need for her to work and earn money, rather than study yoga. She continued to work at the trucking company, but more remotely with only check-ins physically at the office so she could help her husband out at home.
“What I didn’t realize was that when he was at home, he was making phone calls and shifting things around a little bit,” she says, noting that an old truck that was in the yard disappeared one day that he told her not to worry about when she noticed it was gone.
She later learned Nisbet had sold the truck when an email from the yoga studio came to her saying congrats for signing up for yoga training.
“My husband pushed me into it a little bit I guess you could say, but he supported it so much,” she says, adding that he told her she needed to do what she loves. Life before her yoga instruction, Dionne-Nisbet’s husband recalls as being stressful, rushed, depressed, unhealthy, living day-by-day with goals that ultimately only benefited those she worked for.
“I went to the yoga studio and still worked my job and supported him as best I could as he came back from this injury both mentally and physically,” Dionne-Nisbet says. “As hard as it was, we made it work.”
I did not believe in myself enough to think that I could actually teach yoga.
She finished her yoga training on Jan. 12, 2012, and the very next day, the teacher asked her to substitute for one of her classes. She told Dionne-Nisbet she believed in her because she saw what she was capable of.
“Okay, well throw me into the fire,” Dionne-Nisbet thought, but took over the class for that week until the instructor informed her she wasn’t coming back and it was a permanent position.
Besides, “Are you kidding me?” as thoughts running through her mind, Dionne-Nisbet ended up teaching the two-month class, learning to appreciate the unexpected opportunity.
“Honestly, it’s the best gift that teacher could have given me because I did not believe in myself enough to think that I could actually teach yoga,” she says.
New yoga opportunities kept popping up for Dionne-Nisbet as the year progressed yet she continued to work in the trucking company for stability. That was until the end of May 2012.
He freaked out, called me every name you can imagine and slammed my door so hard that he cracked the wall and the door.
Being the only woman working in a department creates challenges and isolation, but the environment never affected Dionne-Nibet much until she was given a task out of her scope of work from a manager, not her own, that she said “no” to doing. There were many reasons for her not taking on the task, but the main one was that her boss had previously told her not to do the work if asked.
“He freaked out, called me every name you can imagine and slammed my door so hard that he cracked the wall and the door so I went to my manager and complained,” Dionne-Nisbet says.
When her manager then called her into his office with the other manager to tell her that she needed to be more of a team player, it was an awakening. “It was the universe saying, ‘Look Lady, you’re not getting our subtle hints so we’re going to make a huge explosion in your world to propel you in the direction that you need to go.’ So I quit on the spot.”
That experience propelled her into her own business, Yoga Path. She taught classes in the Tofield United Church that gained popularity while she also helped Edmonton-based yoga studios with their computer systems to get her foot in their doors. “It was hilarious because I was known as the yoga studio computer guru since they all use the same software,” she says. “I got to meet a lot of neat people and eventually it just evolved into what it is now.”
We call ourselves the broken people that need to be held together.
After taking a Yoga Therapy course in Calgary with Susi Hately (https://www.functionalsynergy.com/) Dionne-Nisbet was very inspired to help people get out of pain. “I started teaching differently,” she says. “Instead of being the big, fluid fast-paced yoga, I went so slow and mindful that people realized, ‘Oh, that kind of hurts I better back off a bit,’ and I got people to re-engage with the mind and body connection.”
She asked her students if they would mind being her petri dish to try new things out. And they did not. “My clientele – we call ourselves the broken people that need to be held together,” says Dionne-Nisbet. “And I don’t mean that in a negative way, but it started out with that yoga therapy course in Calgary.”
She took every yoga pose that is popular and found a way to either do it on a chair or floor in a way that is accessible by any body. “Not ‘anybody’,” she stresses, “but ‘Any. Body,’ ” to include all body types and abilities. What looks and feels right for one person shouldn’t be forced on another to copy. There isn’t just one way.
Dionne-Nisbet says, “People started popping into my classes and would say, ‘Wow, we hardly moved but I felt more in my muscles the next day than I would have in a faster class.’ ”
Word got out about her classes and she got a call from a friend at Parkinson’s Alberta who was interested in her “new yoga stuff.” She explained that it wasn’t really new, it was just different. Whatever she called it, they wanted her to teach a class with their clients, which started out as one chair-yoga class a week and is still going on today.
The level of how bad Parkinson’s is in a person’s body can vary so much from the point of not even noticing it all the way to constant, severe shakes. Dionne-Nisbet’s class enabled everybody to take part and do what they could do in their own way.
It’s mind-blowing to her that she can now get up in front of groups of 40 or so people and have a conversation with them. Her elementary self is a distant memory. “I think I can do it because I believe in what I’m doing and I want to help people,” she says. “I’ve come into my own in a sense because I’ve decided what other people think of me is none of my business and if I want to speak my truth, I need to speak my truth.”
She feels the permission she gives people to be themselves in the class and not like the person next to them is what her students are drawn to and keeps them coming back. “I believe when the teacher is ready, students will show up and when students are ready, the teacher will show up,” she says.
A little more than three years ago, a friend brought her dad to a gentle restorative class of Dionne-Nisbet’s and the week after, his wife came. Not long after that, Dionne-Nisbet received an email asking if she would want to teach at the Fort Saskatchewan Correctional Centre to work with the female inmates. She rarely turns things down that are community minded, so she said yes.
It took many months to get the program underway as she had to go through extreme security checks but by February 2013, her weekly class for 15 female inmates began. There are two female units at the prison and so she alternates between the units each Tuesday evening, and the 15 specific women are chosen based on good behaviour and if they signed up for the class.
It’s hard to believe they live in that space but I can understand as well that it is the safest space they have.
The prison is short-term facility where many inmates serve only a month or two there, which means she may not see the same girls ever again, creating a challenge to instruct a class that is always for beginners. “I can’t plan a class to have them build up towards anything and so I’m always creating a class for the new people in front of me,” she explains. “And I teach specifically to the people in front of me, meaning if the women all come up to me and complain that their hips hurt, I’ll plan a hips class on the spot.”
Before starting this program, Dionne-Nisbet was given a tour of the prison and was able to step into a cell with the door shut after her. “Even though the space isn’t extremely small, it’s small enough that I started to have a panic attack and my claustrophobia was enough to scare me straight,” she says.
She keeps that spatial awareness in mind when taking the class through movements, keeping the inmates contained to the space of their mat because it fits perfectly in their cells. This is helpful to the women because even though they cannot bring their mats into their cells after class, they can still repeat the same movements in their cells and know their boundaries.
“It’s hard to believe they live in that space but I can understand as well that it is the safest space they have – but I try not to go down that road because that’s not my role there,” Dionne-Nisbet says.
I had to learn really quickly that I am the alpha, even though I’m all ‘yoga, love and life.’
She has to follow procedures for safety but also to keep order. The procedure includes: when she gets to the room to teach, she lays out the mats with the help of prison activity staff. The girls sign in and cannot enter the gym area until Dionne-Nisbet says she’s ready and then they enter unescorted for her to teach them without any guards coming in the room.
“That is why I had to learn really quickly that I am the alpha, even though I’m all ‘yoga, love and life,’ I still have to be a mom,” she explains. “It’s very much high school, even the older ladies are like that, too, but you know that they’ve all done something somewhat bad to end up here so it’s an interesting yin-yang experience.”
Since there are only 15 spots for each class, the women have to earn their space with good behaviour but can still be kicked out if they are rude or obnoxious in class. Then they would be banned from yoga for a year. Dionne-Nisbet is the one who determines if someone gets kicked out.
“The few girls who have come back to a second class, they know how awesome they feel so when one of the other girls starts talking or being goofy, they say, ‘Shut up. Don’t ruin this for me. This is my hour,’ ” Dionne-Nisbet says. “They are self-regulating, which is quite amazing.”
There’s nothing like that feeling of all those eyes watching you.
When the class is done, the women wipe down their mats and roll them up creating a few minutes for one or two of them to have a quick conversation with Dionne-Nisbet. If the questions are about how to reach her when they are out of prison, she doesn’t give out that information. “If they get out and need some help to find a yoga class, my contact at the prison will help me, help them, but I’ve been advised not to give out my info because you just don’t know,” she says.
The prison holds male and female inmates, but their schedules and units keep the two sexes separate, yet Dionne-Nisbet passes the male inmates every Tuesday she comes in to teach yoga. She has a badge now that she can enter all the doors unescorted and get to where she needs to but it’s still an awkward feeling each time as she walks through the common food area as it is also when all the men come into the sunken “food court” space off to her side for supper.
“I try to keep my eyes down because I’ve been told, you just don’t know what could be a trigger for some people,” she says, adding that there are guards in the space and she’s never had any concerns for her safety. “There’s just nothing like that feeling of all those eyes watching you as you walk through, it’s an interesting feeling, but no matter how I time it, I have to pass them as they come into the line up.”
Rumour has it though, that the men have been requesting a yoga class, which is something she and the prison are considering.
In August 2015, Dionne-Nisbet made the big leap to leave all studios and teach independently mainly because she saw too many teachers watching clients pushing themselves and bodies too far but doing nothing about it. “I’m not saying all studios and all teachers – just the experiences from where I’ve been,” she explains, adding that she wanted to be associated with more restorative practice.
The universe said, ‘No Darling, you’re not going to do this.’
But as soon as she left that security of a studio behind her, she panicked about her income and got an office job to subsidize her income. “But the universe said, “No Darling, you’re not going to do this,’ and made sure that everything that could go wrong did with that job and I had to quit again,” she says.
Seniors who took her classes at one of the studios connected with her and said she’d just have to rent a space so she could keep teaching them. They took the initiative to connect her with a few locations and that’s how her classes at the Sherwood Park United Church began. The community that has grown in that class includes students who have multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, are recovering from a stroke, going through cancer treatment, seniors and everyone else who wants a safe, slow-moving yoga practice.
If I ever say, ‘No I’m good, I have enough training,’ then I shouldn’t be teaching anymore.
Dionne-Nisbet encourages the members to arrive to the class five-to-10 minutes early and sit together to talk about what’s going on in everyone’s lives. She wants people to connect and feel a part of something. A small community has been created where the group frequently goes for tea together afterwards.
“One of the best gifts from yoga is being able to support and help create a community and inspire people to be the person they know they can be,” she says. “That is the biggest gift that I get in return.”
Dionne-Nisbet’s husband says the transformation in her is profound. “Now, she’s happy 99 per cent of the time, less focused on the negative, patient beyond belief with a healthy mind and soul,” he says, adding that she has long-term goals now that benefit her, the family and all of whom she practices with. “What you see is what you get, and you’re getting the best Michelle that she’s ever been.”
Some of those long-term goals include more training. “If I ever say, ‘No I’m good, I have enough training,’ then I shouldn’t be teaching anymore because things are constantly shifting and changing and I have only scraped the tip of the iceberg in terms of the things I’ve learned,” she says in regards to the nearly 1,000 hours of training she has taken.
You need 200 hours of training to become a yoga teacher.
Her ideas continue to grow much like the one that started three years ago, now known as one of the most affordable yoga retreats in Jasper. “The first one started with the thoughts of, ‘I love what I do so how can I do something and have it paid for?” she says. “Honestly, you don’t get paid a lot as a yoga instructor.”
In the summer of 2013, her daughter fell ill and was in the hospital for a week leaving Dionne-Nisbet with a lot of bedside thinking time. She connected with someone in Jasper who helped her get the logistics of the retreat set up along with the yoga studio she was working for at the time. She organized the event for 15 people, yet 30 registered. She is now completely on her own, not with a studio, running this retreat and is at the maximum the space will allow of 40 people. And it sells out each year.
Her interests have expanded into meditation and essential oils to benefit her understanding and therapeutic offerings to her clients, or friends as she likes to call them, during her yoga classes.
Dionne-Nisbet met Kushok Lobsang Damchӧe, a Tibetan monk that studied with the Dali Lama in India, through a Sherwood Park yoga studio and the two have become close friends. The connection and mentorship the Kushok gives her, led to yoga meditation retreats and workshops the two lead together about once a month at his center, the Gaden Samten Ling, in Edmonton’s downtown area.
It’s similar to the connection she made with the Tofield United Church’s Reverend, as the two have created unified workshops for her clients and those who worship at the church to “Be the Change:” a phrase Dionne-Nisbet embodies and has tattooed on her hand that also aligns with that church’s community building and supportive nature.
“I swear if he (the reverend) would have been part of the religious world that I remember as a child, then I would probably still be in that world because he is just amazing,” Dionne-Nisbet says, fully admitting she does not practice a formal religion.
She does strongly believe in the mindful benefits of yoga and its ability to affect people positively. “Yoga is not always on the mat. When we get yoga off of the mat, that’s when the world will change,” she says.
I felt a snap in my knee, instantly dropped to the floor in pain and thought I snapped one of the tendons they fixed years ago.
Essential oils were a way for Dionne-Nisbet to be more responsible for her own health care. “One of my frustrations is not getting to the root cause of our issues in our health-care system and so we take a medicine and just cover it up instead of diving in and figuring out why we are we in pain to begin with,” she explains. “A search for a more holistic way to relieve certain issues led me down the path to work with pure essential oils.”
Her first-hand experience became more necessary after running a half-marathon in August 2014. It wasn’t the running that hurt her, it was the winter break from training she took to do more “fun,” weather-friendly activities like yoga, dancing and playing tag. “In my house, there’s a central closet and we played tag around it until my knee went in one direction and my body went in another,” she says. “I feel a snap in my knee, instantly dropped to the floor in pain and thought I snapped one of the tendons they fixed years ago.”
While waiting for an MRI in mid-January 2016, she began using essential oils, instead of the offered cortisol injections, to alleviate the pain.
When the surgeon, the same one who has followed her knee procedures since the first surgery, took X-rays and an MRI, he told her the good news was that there wouldn’t be surgery but the bad news was that they couldn’t fix what she did.
She burst three bursas, small fluid-filled pads that reduce friction to cushion pressure points between bones, tendons and muscles near our joints. Two bursas in her knee and one in her hip were affected and the only fix would be a knee and hip replacement she’s too young to be considered a candidate for.
“I was secretly hoping it would be a quick laparoscopic surgery, in and out and done but it’s not, so it’s really going to be an opportunity to slow down, look at things, plan, conspire, create and know I’m back in that pain mode for 24 hours,” Dionne-Nisbet says, adding that the doctors are surprised she’s still so mobile. “I can’t imagine what it would be like if I wasn’t doing yoga and essential oils and meditation.”
She’s switching things up a bit with activity to do more deep-water swimming. “I can go hours at a time without pain and I will always try a natural approach to helping myself,” she says.
“I’m so lucky to wake up in the morning and I get to do what I get to do,” she says. “There have been a few times where I’ve gone off course and I thought, ‘Well, I’m not making quite enough,’ and I’d go and get a full-time job working for someone else but I never last more than two months or the universe slaps me upside the head and says, ‘No, this is not where you’re meant to be. You need to go and do something else.’ And as soon as I realign my soul … I’m taken care of. Literally, the universe has got my back. I truly believe it.”
Contact Information for Michelle Dionne-Nisbet & Yoga Path
It has been a few weeks since posting my last article, a longer delay than I expected, but this story about Michelle Dionne-Nisbet is finally ready while wrapping up the second issue – 8/8 posts per issue of New-Normal.
I will regroup and see where the interest lies in this blog. Please let me know if you have questions or interest in seeing these posts continue.
Thanks so much – Michelle Lindstrom