From the Inside Out |

From the Inside Out

Mindful HearTribe is creating a network of positive, confident mountain women

By Kirsten Dobroth

Photography by Dominique Taylor    Illustrations by Carly Arnold

The women of the Vail Valley are fierce — they ski, hike, bike, camp and work, and are frequently mothers, girlfriends or wives. However, less talked about but a frequent role for mountain women is that of being their own advocates. In a place that sees a rotating influx of residents and a higher percentage of men than women, it can often be difficult to connect with other females and find a niche that supports individual growth. The Mindful HearTribe, led by licensed social worker and relationship therapist Jessica Waclawski, is working to change that, tribe by tribe, by bringing together women in female-only group sessions aimed at empowering the area’s ladies and focusing each individual on becoming the best version of herself.

Building a Tribe

Mindful HearTribe sessions are held at Waclawski’s practice in EagleVail, with each session comprised of six meetings of “tribe” members. Waclawski explains that the goals of the Mindful HearTribe sessions are less about traditional therapy, and more about creating a group of supportive women working through shared struggles, experiences and goals via honest and, at times, candid conversation.

“I don’t describe it as a therapeutic group, and that’s usually one of the first things I clarify because in this space I’m not really wearing my therapist hat,” she says. “It’s more of a community, and I’m guiding it and leading the conversations and the topics, and we’re addressing deeper, vulnerable spaces as women, but it’s not a therapy group.”

Angie Brown was a member of the first HearTribe session, and signed up for the second session after her experience. She agrees that the group’s goals have less in common with traditional therapy, and align more with connecting like-minded women.

“It’s not like you go and spill your guts out about you,” she explains. “It’s not about you — it’s time for me to help myself grow, but I’m also there to learn from other people. It’s kind of like having coffee with girlfriends, and that’s a bit what it’s turned into: It helps connect you with people who can help you grow.”

Participants can expect sessions to start with exercises in mindfulness — light meditation to let go of stressful parts of their day, along with work designed around envisioning goals. Talk then turns to topics of femininity, individuality, relationships and long-term visions, as women of different ages and backgrounds thoughtfully work through life’s curveballs while plotting a course to consciously and purposefully work toward the selves they want to become.

The discrepancy between ages and backgrounds of Tribe members often adds a level of connection within each group, with women in different stages of life often finding reassurance in knowing that they’re not alone in their fears and dreams. Waclawski says the ability of so many different women to come together in this way frequently creates more meaningful conversations about shared parts of womanhood.

“I think it’s also validating that there’s this common thread across ages. The 30-year-old can talk about what’s tough for her in her relationship, and the woman with more experience can relate, ‘Yeah, I’ve so been there,’ or ‘Yeah, I get that right now in my own relationship, too,’ so it’s really been beautiful to watch. It’s definitely building a community of supportive women.”

Nurturing the Mind and Body

While the focus of meetings is dominated by group discussion, tribe members receive a massage, a yoga consultation, a one-on-one with Waclawski, and nutritional support in an effort to align the body and mind. The idea is to foster a sense of individuality by building a strong community of women, as well as through nurturing the physical and mental connections of each group member. The massage component is aimed at nurturing feminine energy and targeting areas where women typically hold tension and stress, and the yoga similarly offers poses meant to foster more feminine alignment. Penny Wilson, PhD, is a registered dietician and nutritionist with an extensive background in physiology and athletic nutrition who has pivoted her focus over the years to be more specific to women’s dietary needs. She leads the nutritional component of HearTribe. She says the goals of incorporating the more physical aspects of the HearTribe program work to nourish group members individually in order to make a stronger community of women.

“We’re so good about taking care of others and putting ourselves last,” she explains. “You can’t fill up yourself if your cup is empty, so you’ve got to take time to really nourish your body and feed your body and take care of it in order to take care of other people, and that’s a big part of the group — filling your own cup.”

This idea of women putting themselves last in the hierarchy of needs is a common discussion point. Laura Madsen participated in the second session of the HearTribe, and says along with the overall message and connections formed by the group, the physical components impart important takeaways for members of nourishing yourself from the inside in order to be at your best with others.

“All of us have things going on; we’re balancing different things,” she says. “But, if I’m not well, all those other parts of me and connections to others aren’t going to be well.”

Addressing the Issues

Although group participants and Waclawski are hesitant to describe the HearTribe as a therapy group, the group’s sentiments of support offer an opportunity to let it out that’s become a rarity, and even a stigma, in mountain communities. As of 2015, according to the Colorado Health Institute, there were 14 licensed psychologists in Eagle County for a population of 53,861; that’s one psychologist for every 3,847.2 people. And while not everyone needs a licensed psychologist, it can be limiting for many women who also are having a hard time maintaining a connection with other females in the area.

That difficulty of connection is a common point of discussion that arises throughout the group’s meetings. The inherent busyness of modern life makes it difficult for women to form tight groups of friends in almost all communities in the U.S. But in the Vail Valley, the challenge is exacerbated by a community that, in terms of numbers, is dominated by men; a transient population of seasonal workers; schedules that fluctuate wildly between winter and summer seasons; the exodus of long-term friends who leave to raise families in more affordable areas; and breakups that put distance between women and friends they shared with a significant other.

Similarly, the small-town nature of the area can often feel as isolating and counterproductive for fostering personal growth as it is conducive for creating close-knit connections and possibilities. Especially for women who have spent their adult lives evolving under the microscope of the Vail bubble, the stigmas of their pasts can often form lasting opinions and impressions among community members and acquaintances that don’t reflect their current goals and self.

“It can be so hard sometimes because some people keep you in the past,” says Madsen, “They don’t always have you in the now or the future, and you have to say, ‘No, this is who I am today.’”

Some circles within the area can be difficult to break into, as well. While mountain sports like skiing and snowboarding are common recreational outlets for many, they can also be a bit isolating for others who move to the area for work, or simply to experience life in the mountains.

“People always ask me why I moved here if I don’t ski,” explains Brown. “I moved here for work opportunities, and because I have a family here it’s not as isolating as I think it would be if I were single — but (skiing is) a natural way people meet up, so that can sometimes be difficult.”

The inherent competitiveness of many Vail Valley women through mountain sports can also create a sense of solitude for females who might pride themselves on keeping up with the boys as opposed to hanging out with the ladies. But, in truth, many women find that sharing this time with female friends empowers their connections, regardless of skill level.

“I’m a true Colorado girl,” says Madsen. “I love to be outside, paddling, fishing and skiing, but I don’t like to do it alone.”

Lasting Connections

And while there are certainly aspects of life in the mountains that can seem isolating, there is a lot of common ground that can bring them together, too. A fierceness burns inside each woman of the Vail Valley whether she realizes it or not. Many have come here from other places, or carved a niche — and a life — for themselves away from family.

So far, Waclawski says the connections fostered through Tribe sessions have helped to cultivate that sentiment and created friendships that have exceeded the program’s six meetings, with group members staying in touch via Facebook, meeting up in their free time, and even creating connections with members of other HearTribe sessions.

“There has really been a desire for all the groups to stay in touch, which has really fostered a growing community and brings all the groups back together,” she says.

In order to strengthen the tribal bond of the participants around the setting they call home, Waclawski incorporates outdoor meetings into the sessions, which solidifies the sense of community that they’re creating together. The last session featured a full moon potluck, with participants invited to bring other female friends along to the meeting.

The ladies agree that the ripple effect is working. Brown says being a part of the first Tribe has created a network of women she can reach out to, and that being a part of the second HearTribe session has given her a chance to observe a progression of discussion topics, and be part of a growing group of women all moving toward the best version of themselves.

“I joined it in the first place to meet other like-minded women in the valley, and I do think the group provides that and attracts a certain type of person to it,” she says. “Being around like-minded, positive women — we can share ideas and learn from each other and connect, and it’s great to see that evolve.”

And while the topics and the participants evolve on a Tribe by Tribe basis, the goals and the outcomes of the Mindful HearTribe remain as clear and consistent as the results: cultivating a sense of individual strength perpetuated by the support and confidence they build together.

For more info see

Support Local Journalism