Heather Waring is a talented coach who, as part of her work, leads groups of women on walks to discover themselves on the Camino de Santiago. I’ve been fascinated by the way she combines walking and personal transformation ever since I first discovered her coaching practice, and was intrigued to find out more about her experience of this ancient path as well as her walks around her home in Epping Forest, London.
Heather is a certified coach, is a member of the Federation of Small Businesses, a founder member of the Association for Coaching and a past Chair of Women in Docklands. In the past Heather has been a columnist for both Cosmopolitan Magazine and the Sunday Express, and a regular contributor to Glamour magazine. In 2013 she burnt out and in 2014 was diagnosed with Adrenal Fatigue. She now reflects that together these became the best and biggest gift she could ever have been given.
“Successful for many years as a Career Development Strategist, I was constantly pushing myself as a career women, mum, wife, daughter and friend to be all I could be. I had got somewhat lost along the way, and although I had a great life in so many ways, I wasn’t happy and I had stopped loving me.
My diagnosis gave me the opportunity to stop, to really take stock and to put ‘me’ first knowing that if I was fulfilled, then I was in an even better place to give to others.”
Now, as a result of that journey and my passion for walking, I give women space to reflect and to make themselves the leading lady of their own lives.
By taking them on transformational walking experiences along ancient paths, like the Camino de Santiago in France and Spain we tap into the wisdom and stories of the path and then into their own wisdom and stories. In so doing they rediscover, reconnect and re-ignite their spark, just like I did.”
To find out more about Heather’s work, do take a look at her website – Women walking, women talking.
Walking the path of nature with Heather Waring
Heather: The more I walk, and the more I walk in nature, the more I’ve found myself being drawn deeper and deeper into the cycles of nature. I was reminded of that last December. I’d been doing a program in the States, which meant travelling, and with a small group of women we put together a program for 100 days, to have a big push on your business.
Now I really wanted to be a part of that program, but at the back of my mind was this little voice saying “This is the beginning of December, it’s usually your slow down time”. I have family birthdays in December, and I’m a big Christmas person.
But at first, I completely ignored my intuition.
I found myself railing against it all the time. The group had such push, push, push energy – and there was a celebration every time someone made some money or got a client, but no celebration of some of the things that I was saying about being in tune with nature. In fact, the feedback I was getting was “Heather, what you need is…”
Eventually I realised “Actually, I know what I need. And this is not it.”
I wasn’t honouring what for me are my hibernation months, which are December, January and February.
Madeleine: You’re so right. It’s about listening to what we need. I don’t know about you, but I came to the seasonal stuff organically. I liked walking, I liked seeing the trees change. But I’m starting to feel more passionate about it as a movement for change in how we live. We don’t put enough value on that time when we’re “doing nothing”. If I was only going to be in business for a hundred days, fine, go all out. But you or I, we want to be doing the work we’re called to do for decades. And so that time to rest is important.
It’s true: we don’t value that time doing nothing. And that’s one of the biggest things we’re up against, with women especially. Women are not good at taking time for themselves.
There’s some of us who are better at it, and some us who were maybe good at it from the very beginning, but very generally – we have that caring, nurturing bit which is so lovely, and we give it to everyone else, but we don’t give it and implement it where we’re concerned.
That’s why I take women away for a week when I lead groups on the camino, because they don’t have to think about doing the washing up, or making the bed – they don’t have to focus on looking after their family, they can focus completely on themselves. And that’s quite disorientating for them sometimes.
How does walking fit into that?
For me, walking is the form of exercise that works for me. And with the long distance aspect, it’s my passion. When I take women away on the path, they’re walking every day. And the walking is the vehicle for delivering coaching, discussion…
One testimonial which stands out for me was from a woman who said “Before I came away I was drowning. I was the one who kept my family afloat, my team afloat, but no one was keeping me afloat. And after a week of walking, reflecting, and being in the company of other women, I’ve come back rejuvenated, re-energised, and refreshed”.
I think that’s what that time out offers.
Walking is different, somehow. It’s such a natural pace to see the world at.
There’s a real rhythm to it. The pace allows you to take on board what you see as you go along. I have become so good at spotting funghi! Like, from miles away! I don’t know what they all are, but it’s become a bit of a standing joke with my walking ladies. I didn’t do that before. I didn’t see stuff as much.
I walk a lot in Epping Forest, and I walk the same paths over and over again, but sometimes I’ll just take a different way. You’ve got the pace to change direction, which maybe you don’t have so much if you’re running or cycling.
And at any point you can stop, and sit, and just be.
It’s a very ancient pace. And it’s a great metaphor for so many things, isn’t it: if you go a bit slower, the whole experience is richer.
Yes. It really is. I finally did the last section of the camino last year. I finally got to Santaigo, and to be honest I was expecting the last bit to be not that nice, and very busy. And yes, it was busier. But a lot of it was green, because it’s Galicia – green Spain. And a lot of it was through ancient oak woods.
So I’m walking through ancient oak woods, looking at these gnarled, twisted old oak trees, thinking “if those trees could talk, what stories could they tell?”.
They would have seen generations of people walk the path, for all kinds of reasons. For religious reasons, for penance, for challenge, for spirituality… the stories they must have heard, in the same way that they now hear the stories and the discussions we tell.
I came away from that really realizing I wanted to niche down even further, and walk only the ancient paths. Because you can tap into the wisdom of the path. The wisdom and the stories of those who’ve gone before. And bringing it back to us as women, our wisdom: our wisdom hasn’t always been valued as much. And therefore, we as women sometimes think we’re not as important.
But we are. And we are so much more in touch with nature. We have that whole cyclic nature in our bodies; we have so many stories.
There’s a thing, isn’t there: we’re not linear in how we think about things or how we interpret the world. I often hear women apologising, saying “that made no sense” or “I’m just going round in circles” or “I’m just rambling”. When often, what they’ve shared is really profound, and affecting, and important.
What’s interesting is when you take something linear like a path, and look at it from our cyclical viewpoints. In the same way as when you walk the path in a different season, it’s the same path, but it’s different.
I love that. Finding the cycles within the linear. It’s a strange concept, but it works. And of course if you walk through the seasons, you see the changes in seasons. I marvel at how the leaves and the trees are so green in summer – there are bits you can’t see because the leaves are so dense.
Then you get the changing of colours, and the skeleton of the tree. And there’s no leaves there, and no sign of leaves. And in Spring, they come. It’s like this magical wand that nature provides.
Do you have a favourite season to walk in?
Not really. I love elements of all of it. In a way, my least favourite is winter, but I think that’s more to do with the weather not being as good. But then you get those magical frosty, blue sky sunshine days. I love them all.
What about you? Do you have a favourite season?
I really like Autumn. Especially living in a hotter country now, I really find I crave it. I find the heat of summer hard. There comes a point when I feel I can’t do anything or think.
We just don’t get that in the UK. I remember walking some of the Camino in September. It was the year we went over the Pyrenees, and we’d chosen late September, because we figured there’d be no snow, the ground would still be dry after the summer, and hopefully it would be pleasant. And yet it rained as soon as we left. We couldn’t see a thing! Then, the pendulum swung, and suddenly we were walking in 35 degrees. It’s never usually that hot at that time of year. I really didn’t like that – it was too hot for me.
That was the first part of the Camino?
It was my middle, actually because I started it in France. It’s the first part that a lot of people do.
Tell me a bit more about the Camino.
It’s a very ancient path, one that’s been walked for hundreds and thousands of years. It’s all about St James, who was one of the apostles of Christ, for Christians – his bones are supposedly in the cathedral in Santiago, where the pilgrimage ends.
There are lots of stories told, for example that he was at risk of drowning when he went to the sea at Santiago, and all these scallop shells came up to meet him and formed a causeway. So that’s why the scallop shell is the sign of the Camino.
Now, the bit of the Camino from the French/Spanish border is the start for most people. It’s 500miles, 800 km. In one go, it will take somewhere between 4–6 weeks to do it. The true pilgrims carry all their things with them, and stay in the hostels along the route.
The Camino used to be mainly religious, a pilgrimage path. People would walk for penance: carrying crosses, flagellating themselves. Even today, when you get near to Snatiago you cans see some of that practice happening.
You can also come to Santiago from one of three places in France. That brings it up to almost a thousand miles. I did it in sections: a week’s walking, every year for 9 years. Which is actually a really long way to do it.
I love that timescale. Nine years. That’s a beautiful amount of time to live your life with this practice in it.
With this wonderful path. And I’m not religious, but I have gotten more spiritual as I’ve walked it. I think a lot of that is just the time to be, and to think, and to walk. I walked it with a girlfriend. And we had similarities from the start: We walked at a similar pace, we didn’t want to have the TV on in the bedroom when we arrived at our place, we loved the food …
In some ways, I didn’t do it as a true pilgrim, because I don’t carry all my stuff. When I take women on the Camino we have a company that caries the luggage and books a bed, breakfast and evening meal in advance.
So if you’ve had a long day or it takes longer than you planned, and you don’t get into town until 7:30pm at night, you have a comfy bed and a hot bath waiting for you. It’s probably a bit about getting older! I want a good night’s sleep so I can get up in the morning and be in a good place.
There’s something about knowing yourself, isn’t there. There are no prizes for making things difficult.
How did you first come across the idea of walking the Camino?
I read a book by Nicholas Crane called “Clearwater rising”, about a walk he’d done across Spain and Europe. I remember reading it and thinking “wow.”
That’s where the seed was first planted. And then Teresa, the women I walked with, joined a group I’d set up to do a charity walk. We were walking one day and realised we both wanted to do the Camino. And we decided to start the walk in France.
France is greener. You’re walking at times through moorland, in woodland. France has more of a history of walking, more of an infrastructure – a bit like the UK with our long distance paths. You’re not walking along roads much. I find roads suck your energy. And it’s quieter.
The older I get, I’m discovering my more introverted tendencies!
Do you tend to walk at the same time of year?
My favourite times are spring and autumn. In spring you’re typically seeing flowers. But it varies so much. Someone I know was out there in April, just at the last 100k before Santiago, and he posted pictures of snow. I was surprised to see snow at that time of the year. But you always get that spring feeling, everything coming alive.
And then in autumn, of course you’re seeing the beautiful colours of the leaves starting to turn. You’re in wine regions, and there are bunches of just beautiful ripe grapes. Even the beginning of the harvest, that abundant harvest time – trailers piled high with grapes. I suppose if we walked later we’d start to see the vegetation dying down. It’s really beautiful to see it at both times of year.
The middle of summer seems too hot for me.
And at home then, do you walk all the way through the winter and into spring?
I try to walk 10,000 steps every day, but a lot of that is doing things I have to do, walking in Central London if I’m there for meetings. I consciously plan my journeys so that I walk across London to connect to the line I need; I’m always conscious of getting my walking into the day. But my ideal day is one where I get out of a walk as well. It depends on work; if I have to do a lot of writing I’m stuck in the office.
One of the reasons I walk, and take women walking, is because walking is the vehicle. It allows the discussion, it allows us as women to be thinking about where we fit in nature; where our role is within nature. Where better to find the real you than out in nature, and walking?
A lot of the questions I pose to my clients are things like “What is it that you’re tolerating? That you need to get rid of? That you’d like to have more of? That you don’t do at all, but you’d love to do?”
A lot of my work is getting women to tune into themselves, not on a superficial level, but on a really deep level of who am I really?
This goes back to my experience of burnout and adrenal fatigue, because I had to do that for myself. It really made me look at everything in my life: relationships, wealth, health, work, and see where stress was coming from and how I could get rid of it.
Was nature a part of that?
Yes. Walking and being in nature definitely helped in my recovery. Just the movement, the rhythm, of putting one foot in front of the other, it really helped.
For a lot of women I think we lose ourselves along the way, for a number of different reasons. We don’t set out purposely to lose ourselves, but it just happens along the way.
I want women to learn about themselves and learn how to reconnect with themselves, and develop a life that supports them and that they actually love. When they look after themselves, there in so much of a better position to be there for everyone else.
You walk the path, and you walk your path in life. In both cases there’s a landscape, but with our lives, we can really change that.
In my experience, a lot of people think they can’t. A lot of people settle for second best: a second best relationship, or job, or just a second best version of them. Women can feel trapped in the job and the money they’re earning because it’s fuelling their lifestyle, but even if they don’t want that lifestyle any more they don’t know how to change it. But you can change things.
Sometimes just spending regular time in nature, and seeing how it changes – it shows you how different things can be. Changes are happening all around us, and yet we can feel like were stuck in the same mode of living. Nothing else in nature is stuck that way.
It’s a great lesson. Change is one of the things people fear most, but change is inevitable. You can’t stop change, and nature shows us how beautifully change can happen. How painlessly change can happen (at least it looks painless, I don’t know enough about plants to know if sprouting leaves is painful!). On the whole, the transition looks so seamless. So to use that as an example of how nature changes. Some of the changes women might want to bring about in their lives can be very painful changes. So I ask, how can I help you make those changes in a way of flow? What lessons can we learn; what lessons can we take with us?
We’re very blessed in the UK, because we have such a mix of scenery: the coast, mountains, moorland, rivers lakes, canals. Even our cities! London is a very green city. And you don’t have to go too far to find some greenery. Hopefully that’s true of a lot of places.
If you look, I think most of us can find somewhere to connect with nature.
A very simple thing to do is to bring a plant into your office or your home. Having that is so important. And it’s a very easy link between something living, and you as a living being.
We’re connected aren’t we, we’re part of that. That’s the other thing I love to remember. In my mind I’m so important, and everything I’m doing is so urgent! But there’s a whole world out there…
It opens up possibilities. Hope, as well. I went through a very painful time after the birth of my daughter. I was training for a long distance walk along the Great Wall of China, and we used to go up to the Lake District. And walking kept me sane. I would be on top of a hill or a fell in a mountain, sitting there with my sandwiches and my soup, looking over all these other peaks, and valleys where there were lakes. And you suddenly realise how unimportant you are. Not in a derogatory way, but just appreciating your place in this huge world. And the things that you worry about, the things you let get on top of you, are often really unimportant. Having that perspective, and being able to remember that perspective, allows us to let go of things that run the risk of raising our stress levels. It’s so freeing. Nature has a way of teaching us, and putting us in positions that gives us opportunities for learning.
Those hundred year old oak trees probably aren’t worrying about what the other oak trees are doing.
There’s a whole great forest of them! A community of oak trees. For many of us what’s important is being part of communities, being part of communities.
For many of us, especially women, we do that so well. We connect. We build communities together. I feel that the community that’s being built around my camino experinces is one of those. And take that wider, and it’s introducing women to walking and all the amazing mental and physical benefits it gives you.
We’re part of a movement of doing things differently. It feels like it’s quite an exciting time.
A lot of us don’t want to live our lives thinking we’ll be happy “when I lose weight” or “when I earn more money”. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were living our lives in the moment, and living quality lives more than quantity lives?
I want every day to be a day that’s got so much good in it.