Survivor, integrative practitioner, nurturer.
Western society promotes a sense of pride in being busy, in being relentlessly overwhelmed and overworked. Because if you’re not, you’re not trying hard enough, you’re lazy. For Lauren Smith, being up-against it, stressed to the eyeballs, was her sense of achievement. That was, until it brought her world crashing down.
For over a decade Lauren slogged it out in the competitive world of TV news and sports production, working ridiculous hours, barely sleeping, all to prove that she could make it in that male-dominated world. And while her head was determined, her body had other ideas. After two years of unbearable facial seizures, at the age of 28, she ended up in the emergency ward undergoing brain surgery.
That wakeup call saw Lauren completely reassess her life and her priorities, and undertake a Pilates teacher training course, a skill with which she then got to spend a number of years running retreats in far-reaching tropical locations. That is where we met, on the idyllic beaches of Sri Lanka!
Now back in Melbourne and running her (currently online) studio The Balanced Base, we caught up to discuss her previous life of chaos, her incredible story of survival, and while she will never stop convincing people to take care of their mind, their body and their soul.
Lauren Smith is…
Lauren Smith is attempting to be the best version of herself with the information and the life lessons that she currently has.
What do you do and can you tell me when you realised it was what you wanted to do with your life?
So I currently run a business, which I would like to call a movement, mindset and mindfulness centre. I believe that you can’t approach the physical without the mental. So it is Pilates and yoga classes, which is the movement part. I also teach meditation and mindfulness sessions. This includes restorative yoga, and workshops in conjunction with a range of holistic practitioners.
I now live a very different life to what I used to. I spent 15 years working in live television sport, mainly following the AFL football season around. There was parts of it that I loved, parts of it that I hated, but I never really felt like I had a sense of purpose. I probably stayed in it for a lot longer than I needed to because I felt like I had a very big community of friends in that career. But they were the only thing keeping me there in the end. I lost satisfaction for what I was doing. And the intense nature of the work, the hours and the travel was taking too much of a toll on my health. I knew I couldn’t do it forever.
But I was forced to think about it when I had a fairly major medical condition happen, which subsequently saw me very heavily medicated for two years and then require brain surgery. I knew then I had to find something else.
Yes wow, I definitely do want to come back to that!
For sure. So I was a gymnast as a child, and in later life I always did Pilates as my way to relieve stress from my job. So I started teaching Pilates classes and I had no idea where it was going to take me. I just knew I wanted to be an instructor.
I wasn’t entirely confident that it was going to take over as a full time job. I was obviously very scared of leaving an industry I’d been involved in for so long, and very much as a single woman with no kids, it made up a lot of my identity. That job became who I was, which is totally wrong, but because it consumed so much of my time.
And so letting go of that, it was more letting go of who I thought I was. I just started teaching Pilates and then I went on my own health retreat over in Thailand. And just by sheer coincidence, I got asked while I was there to actually run a Pilates class for the retreat. And then I was like, I quite like this retreat thing. Yeah, I could do this.
I didn’t stay right then. But I went back the following year and I worked there for three months. I think it was in that moment that I was like, this is what I want to do. I like not just teaching the Pilates, but that whole retreat experience. People come here because they’re burnt out. They’re stressed out from their full time job. And although I didn’t have the psychological training at that point, I knew that with what I had lived through myself, I could give people perspective of what it was like to survive a stressful life and use this as an outlet.
Yes I was going to ask you, obviously you’ve come from quite a high flying career – can you tell me a little bit about that, how you got into it?
As a kid at school, I was always good at media, and was a very creative kind of person. And so when I was younger, I wanted to work at Channel 10. I don’t even know why I picked Channel 10, but once I get an idea in my head, I have to do it. And so sure enough, my very first full time job in TV was at Channel 10.
I worked in the newsroom as an editor, and I actually got that job because I moved up from the country, rang every single television network for weeks until someone would actually talk to me. And I was like, I’ve done this degree, I’ve done this separate TAFE course, need the experience, and Channel 10 was the one that eventually let me come in and do a really basic data entry job.
Every lunchtime, I went into different departments and said, show me how you do what you do. So the editing boss eventually realised I was prepared to do the work. So he gave me a very basic entry level editor position. And that’s where my career started and I was a news editor for six years.
As I was doing the news, I was also working on things like Sports Tonight, and then some content for the games of AFL. And while I loved that part of it, I started moving away from the news because I felt like I was getting desensitised. I was responsible at the start for editing together war vision stories or stuff that came from overseas. I remember some pretty major things that happened when I was working in there, seeing some of the vision and feeling at odds with the idea that was important to put it on the news and beat someone else to it. But there’s a whole other side of this, these are people’s families.
I just got really desensitised to the graphic nature, just wanting to make a good news story and not actually thinking about the human side of it and that was what made me start moving into sport.
I left my job full time and started working freelance for all the different networks, just traveling around to all of the sporting events. It’s not the kind of editing or producing that you do where you have time to sit and think; decisions have to be made straight away. You have to be a very competent multi-tasker. I prided myself in how fast I could get things done. And basically what happened is that my brain got to a stage where I couldn’t keep up and I got really unwell.
Do you think you’re one of those people who thrived in that chaotic, adrenaline, fast-paced environment?
Yeah, totally chaotic! Fast-paced is exciting, but it gives you very little room to think about anything else. I got to the stage where I felt successful in what I was doing and the pace of it actually suited me because there was a lot of other things that weren’t going right in my life, but I didn’t want to allow myself the time to think about it.
I was like, if I just get this, then this will happen. And if I just get to this stage in my job, then this will happen and everything will be fine. And suddenly you realise that you’ve climbed so many rungs of a ladder that just never ends. And you’re like, well, how do I stop? And I didn’t stop, my body stopped.
I used to say that with some sense of pride, but I don’t see that as pride now at all. I see that as how stupid – why didn’t I slow down when I had the chance? Why wasn’t I doing some of the things that are a daily practice for me now, even once a week, but I just got completely burnt out and refused to accept that I couldn’t handle the pressure.
Also, I was one of the only females in that environment; sport in my time was completely male driven. And so you do feel like you have to work ten times harder. My whole life was just trying to prove myself to be worthy of a career that easily would have chewed me up and spat me out.
I can imagine! What was your diagnosis in the end?
I was diagnosed at the age of 26 with Trigeminal Neuralgia. It’s a nerve pain, but your trigeminal nerve is down the side of your face. It stops you being able to eat properly, stops you being able to talk properly.
There can be a few causes for it. It can be early onset Multiple Sclerosis. It can be a tumour. And it can be an enlarged blood vessel that is hitting on the brain, which is what ended up being the case for me.
For ages they couldn’t find a diagnosis for it. They didn’t understand why I had it. They contributed it to a higher level of stress. And I very much was one of those people that when I went to the doctor, I said oh but I’m not stressed. I deal with it all, and I’m fine.
But the worse it gets, the more aggressive it gets. I would feel like someone literally was stabbing me in the face with a knife. It started off being an occasional thing, then it turned into being every 20 seconds. And then at my absolute worst, just before I ended up hospitalized and needing brain surgery, it wouldn’t stop. It was constant and I had to be very heavily medicated not to feel it.
I spent two years of my life like that because they couldn’t work out the cause for it, so they couldn’t fix it. I’m not proud of the fact that there’s a lot of things in that two years, to this day, I still can’t remember. They were conversations I had with people or situations I got myself into that people have told me about and I actually have no recollection of them.
I was very, very unwell and I just wouldn’t accept it. I just thought if I just get this amount of work done, then I can go home and sleep and I won’t feel the pain anymore. I just pushed and pushed until my body shut down.
Eventually I had a seizure and I ended up on the ground of my garage as I was trying to get in the car to drive to the airport to fly to Perth to produce a game of cricket. I had been on the phone to the neurologist the day before, and she was like, I have put you above the legal dose of what you’re supposed to be taking of this medication. You need to be hospitalised. And I told her I didn’t have time to be hospitalised because I had an Ashes series of cricket to produce in Perth!
God forbid, you wouldn’t get to do that!
I know! I compromised with her and she was just shocked. I was like, I’ll just go for the first day and I’ll set it all up and then I’ll hand it over to someone else. I literally felt like the buck stopped with me. That’s how much I prided my job and that’s how much pressure I put on myself. Anybody from that time will tell you I was doing a terrible job in that particular role, because I was so unwell.
I never made it into the car. I never made it onto the plane. And when I got to the hospital, my neurologist met me at the ambulance. And that’s when I knew that it was serious.
How did your mindset change after that? Was that finally the big wake-up call?
The biggest wakeup call is that there is no cure for Trigeminal Neuralgia. I had it very severely. I was heavily medicated for it. They were never going to do surgery because they couldn’t find a cause for it. But when I ended up having a seizure, they were like, there has to be something going on. We’re going in blind. We actually don’t know what we’re going to find, but there has to be something going on for you to be in this much pain.
I refused the surgery a few times but unless I wanted to be on morphine for the rest of my life, I could not be in this much pain. I needed the surgery. They worked out that it was an enlarged blood vessel hitting on the nerve at the brainstem. This is something I’ll have for the rest of my life. They separated the nerve and the blood vessel, I can no longer feel it, I am in a period of remission, almost 10 years now, but I’ll never get rid of it.
That’s when I was like, okay, how do you end up with an enlarged blood vessel, and how do you stop that happening again? I started doing my research and found it was highly attributed to stress. You will think this is crazy, but I actually went back to work three weeks after having brain surgery. I had my surgery on the 20th of December and I worked at the Australian Open in January. I only did a couple of days – someone else was doing the job and they needed two days off, and they were like, oh, just get Lauren. She’ll be right.
I wasn’t doing as much, but I was freelance, so you’ve got to accept opportunities, you only get paid when you work.
Oh yes I completely understand that!
It wasn’t until I found a support group six months after my surgery, and finally spoke to others with the condition when I realised I needed to start planning a future without that much pressure.
In this support group, every single person was on their second surgery, third surgery. And we were going round the room, telling our stories and it got to me and I could barely speak. I said I’d had my surgery six months ago and everyone looked at me like, oh you poor thing. You think you are cured.
There was an elderly lady and she came up to me and she said, darling, I had my surgery 24 years ago and I have never had a recurrence and you can be like me. But change your life, start doing things for yourself. And don’t sweat the small stuff.
I was like, okay, I want to be this lady, and that’s when I knew I needed to change what I’m doing. That’s when I enrolled in a Pilates teacher training course. I had a bit of brain fog from the surgery, so I really struggled to do the course, but was so glad I did. It took me six years to completely get out of TV. But once I trained up and I was qualified, I started cutting back my days in TV. Then at the end of the Commonwealth games in 2018, I was ready to leave.
That’s the same year I met you!
Yeah that’s when I went to Sri Lanka.
So how did you end up in Sri Lanka and tell me about the retreat work that you were doing?
Whilst I was teaching a little bit of Pilates in 2014, I went to a retreat in Thailand, and that’s where I stepped in for a teacher that didn’t show. I ended up staying on for a few weeks and teaching a few more classes. The retreat offered to have me back the following year. And then that became a regular thing for a couple years in a row. I had the freedom to go and do short stints around my freelance roles in television, usually in October once the AFL season was over.
That sounds like such a dream!
Eventually I knew that I wanted to do it for the whole year and whilst I was on a holiday in Bali, I saw a job for a place in Sri Lanka called Talalla, and I messaged straight away and they invited me test it out for a month and see how I go. Working there made me realise that I had so much more to offer than just teaching Pilates and having a few wellness chats with people. I trained in yoga, mindfulness, breath work and meditation over there and added it to my whole holistic approach.
As a participant, you obviously get a lot out of a retreat, but how did it make you feel facilitating them?
For me, it was seeing people walking in on day one, then seeing them leave on day seven, knowing that they actually already have all the answers inside of them. They just hadn’t been asking themselves the right questions. And that’s why I started my business, because I wanted people to be able to experience that retreat feeling without being at breaking point and having to go overseas.
Can you tell me the process around setting up your business? And given these tricky times, what are you looking to offer?
I came home in August last year to start my business above a friend’s gym. That was the biggest mistake that I made in the whole process – that I didn’t trust myself to do it on my own. I was too scared to go and find a place solely and have that full responsibility. So you have to compromise in a shared space, but it got to the point where I was the only one expected to compromise and to a level that I was completely uncomfortable with. So I announced in February that I was planning on leaving.
A lot of people were ridiculously sad when their businesses were closed for COVID. Initially back in March I will 100% admit that I was relieved. It gave me time to regroup, move and plan for the future.
That obviously showed you exactly what you wanted.
I loved the community and I loved teaching people. I just needed my own space. I had this beautiful vision of exactly what I wanted to do and I couldn’t make it happen there. I had spent a lot of money to make it look the way that it did and I knew that I was going to have to walk away from it.
Then I moved into another facility in June when businesses in Melbourne were allowed to open for two weeks and three days exactly. My intuition knew it wasn’t going to last. I am still excited to have a space where all of this stuff I’d envisioned can happen when restrictions lift.
I have struggled a little bit with online. I like to see people in person. I like to feel their energy. I like to see their facial expressions. I find it challenging at times, but it is what we have to do and you’ve just got to adapt.
When it comes to the way forward for me, I won’t be racing back. Like everybody else, I will be taking it very slow. Where I’ve moved to this time is actually downsized, it’s a temporary home so I won’t physically be able to offer everything that I was offering previously, but that’s okay. Some things like aerial yoga and boxilates will have to wait.
I think I will still keep my online community when everything opens back up, and in studio will be a limited capacity, because I want to see what happens in the next six months, and then eventually move into a bigger, better space.
But at the end of the day, what I am offering is still the same. The understanding of the fact that you need physical movement, but you also need to make movement in your brain. You need space in your brain. You need time in your brain. You need time in your life. And regardless of where I am, I will be convincing people that nothing will ever change for them until they focus on the mental, as well as the physical in combination.
So for someone who is perhaps struggling right now, or is really finding it hard to step away from the stress and step into the mental aspect of it, what would you advise?
Coming into the present moment is one of my pieces of advice. So to put it very simply, if you are angry or frustrated, you’re living in the past. If you are anxious and scared or worried, you’re living in the future. But if you are appreciating each moment, then you are living in the present. And the only way you can do that is by calming down the mind and learning how to meditate, learning mindfulness techniques, learning to actually appreciate beauty in every day.
That’s what mindfulness training is all about – trying to bring attention to what’s happening right now, not looking at what can happen, not thinking about what did happen. And that will always be there, we can’t get rid of those thoughts altogether. But it’s about trying to make time for yourself so that you can attempt to be in the present. Meditation is great for that.
The second thing I would say is decide you are enough and watch what happens. And that may sound silly, but we are wired to not like ourselves. We have to train ourselves to like ourselves, and not just like ourselves, but completely accept ourselves for who we are. Nobody has the answers, nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow.
You only know what you’ve learned to this point. So your point of view is going to be different to someone else, who’s learned something different. So decide you are enough and watch what happens.
Connect with Lauren at The Balance Base.