Enter Minds on Mats. Candis founded Minds on Mats in order to bring yoga and mindfulness to youth in Grand Rapids and throughout Western Michigan. It was these tools, Candis realized, that helped to fill the void that she felt in the classroom when she first started teaching. With so much material to cover, and so much pressure to perform, teachers like Candis were getting burnt out, and students were left without concrete life skills to navigate their own stress. By bringing yoga into schools, teachers would be given a sustainable outlet for self-care, while students would benefit from a comprehensive social-emotional approach to education. Anyway she looked at, Candis saw a win-win that just makes sense for schools.
Candis still integrates yoga into her daily routine with her students, but through her non-profit organization, Candis has also been able to build community partnerships that transcend the brick and mortar of her school. And as Minds on Mats has grown, Candis has expanded her reach. “We aim to create positive school communities that support at-risk youth in decreasing toxic stress levels while increasing physical, social, emotional, and mental health,” she says. It may sound like a tall order, but through Candis’ innovation, passion, and drive, she is making a huge impact in her community, with school yoga programs and teacher professional development grounded in Yoga Ed.’s curriculum. “Yoga Ed. has been a wonderfully supportive network and has helped me learn and grow immensely in my work,” Candis reflects. “Because of this partnership, I am able to train others to bring yoga and mindfulness to their work with children. This has helped me to serve many more children and teens than I would have been able to serve on my own.”
Along the way, the same pivotal benefits Candis experienced from her own yoga practice have manifested in the classrooms she’s reached. As a Reading Specialist, Candis utilizes breathing exercises and mindfulness practice with her students in small groups, and observes a boost in focus and an improvement in behavioral outcomes even through simple, chair-based yoga tools. “I notice that it helps bring high energy down and increases focus before a lesson,” and with limited time and a large caseload, even a little shift can go a long way.
At the root of this shift in student performance and behavior is growth in core social emotional competencies, competencies that are essential for healthy personal development, positive relationships, and success as an adult. Candis explains this connection beautifully: “Yoga is an internal practice, so it creates self- awareness which lead to self-management skills. Most students spend the majority of their school day focusing on what’s happening externally. Having the chance to take a break from that and focus on what’s happening internally is what creates that self- awareness, and this same awareness is what leads to better focus skills and improved behavior.”
For educators that Candis works with, the benefits are just as important. She often hears from teachers that they feel constantly overwhelmed by the amount of material they must cover in a day, which leads to frustration when negative behaviors lead to interruption in the teaching process. “They are always searching for ways to improve student behavior and create a more positive classroom environment,” she says. By taking just a few moments to focus internally and create that self-awareness for themselves, teachers can let go of some of that anxiety while also fostering a calming environment in the classroom. The result? A decrease in stress and an increase in job satisfaction. “I meet many teachers as a Yoga Ed. Trainer that express their own frustrations with coping with high energy environments and negative behaviors,” says Candis. “I am grateful to be able to give them tools to help both themselves and their students.”As she moves forward in her work, Candis stays grounded by continually connecting with teachers in the community and staying involved in school programming and local organizations. By staying tuned in, she says she has a “heightened awareness of what the current needs of schools are,” enabling her to better meet those needs.
No matter how the needs of educators may change, and no matter where the ebbs and flows of education lead, there is one thing that remains clear: stress is here to stay. Students and teachers alike still desperately need more tools to better support their mental, emotional, social, and physical health beyond their performance in the classroom, and these needs are often times not a top priority for districts. But Candis is optimistic. Through her dedicated work, she will continue to promote the health and wellbeing of her community, so that all students and teachers can thrive.