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Sara Harvey Yao is the of founder of Yao Consulting Group and has personally developed more than 4,000 leaders across the globe including executives at Microsoft, Smuckers and Brooks Athletics. She is the author of Drop In: Lead with Deeper Presence and Courage and Get Present: Simple Strategies to Get Out of Your Head and Lead More Powerfully. Connect with Sara at YaoConsulting.com, Facebook, or Twitter. Here's her inspiring story.
My wake-up call came in October 2009. For several weeks prior, I had been under incredible stress at work. I had been leading a new and very visible leadership team development project in which I had several tight deadlines and lofty deliverables. I also had several high-visibility keynote-speaking events booked. My son was starting at a new school, and I had a low-grade respiratory cold I couldn’t quite shake. I remember having fleeting thoughts that I should slow down and rest, but I quickly brushed that inner voice to the side in the name of productivity.
Sara and her family
On car rides home from work during that time, my mind was constantly spinning. I was dissecting what I had said in my last big meeting. I was worried about what I was going to say in my next keynote. I painfully deliberated over what I was going to wear at every event, and I wondered how my son was doing at school.
Morning, noon, and night, my mind was strategizing, analyzing, and mostly worrying. I was exhausted.
On October 29, 2009, I spoke to a room of 1,100 people at Microsoft Corporation right before its then-CEO, Steve Ballmer, took the stage. I delivered a great keynote titled “Succeeding Without Side Effects” and promptly came home and physically crashed. I woke up the next day and took a gulp of water, but instead of swallowing it, I felt the water dribbling down my face. When I wiped away the water, I couldn’t feel my fingers on my face. Then sheer panic overtook me as I realized I couldn’t feel anything on the entire right side of my face. The whole right side of my face was numb, as if I had received several Novocain shots.
I immediately called my doctor and in my appointment, she informed me matter-of-factly that I had Bell’s palsy, a virus that’s related to the Epstein-Barr virus (mono) and that paralyzes one side of the face. She told me how in good cases the paralysis is temporary, lasting three to four months, and in not-so-good cases the paralysis is permanent.
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Needless to say, I was terrified. I later learned that Bell’s palsy is most commonly brought on by stress. My doctor explained that it’s an opportunistic virus that takes over when your immune system is compromised over a period of several weeks. I walked out of her office stunned and scared. When I arrived home and really took a good look at my face, my heart sank. The entire right side of my face hung a bit lower than the left. When I tried to smile, the left side of my face lifted up, but the right side was frozen.
I was unable to close my eyelid and had to put eye drops in every hour and wear an eye patch so I wouldn’t lose my eyesight. I couldn’t eat or drink without food and water falling out of my mouth; I couldn’t talk without sounding a little tipsy. I had been living my life on autopilot and was feeling the effects of it—big-time. Needless to say, I was not succeeding without side effects.
Little did I know that my experience with Bell’s palsy was my initiation into an epic inward journey. Right after my diagnosis I worked closely with my naturopath to design a healing protocol. It included acupuncture twice a week, a lot of sleep, a new way of eating and guidance from a spiritual teacher. My teacher helped me see the deeper implications of my illness and recognize that my body had been giving me messages that it was tired for weeks, but because I had been on autopilot (unconsciously pushing through) I simply didn’t listen to my body’s wisdom. I felt firsthand the cost of operating on autopilot.
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During the three months of healing and Bell's Palsy recovery, and after I moved through my initial panic and denial, I found myself more relaxed and aware than I remember ever being in my adult life. I noticed small things, like the details on the trees outside, the warmth of my son’s face, and the subtle loving looks from my husband. I felt small sensations in my body and felt more emotion. I was more alive, aware, and connected. I was present.
After a couple months of being off autopilot and instead being fully present in my life, presence started to feel like my new normal. As a result, over the last seven years I have deepened my studies and worked with a variety of teachers and guides on topics like Jungian psychology, mind/body awareness, brain science, and ancient wisdom teachings. This path has taken me to places I couldn’t have imagined, often “scary” to my mind, but ultimately deeply enlightening.
Naturally my own journey spilled over into how I worked with my clients. I no longer offered clients the “quick fix” to be more productive or push through. Instead, I made a very conscious decision to focus first and foremost on helping leaders cut through the fog of their spinning minds so they too can feel presence. When a leader has access to the inner stability and clarity that emerges from presence, they are just plain better in every aspect of their lives.
Looking back on it now, Bell’s palsy was my life’s form of conspiring on my behalf. I needed the breakdown for the breakthrough. Even now, when my right eye squints a little tighter than my left or my right cheek starts to twitch, it’s a reminder of where I was in 2009 and how far I have come. My journey led me to a real understanding of the joy and depth that’s available when we live in the present moment and for that, I am forever grateful.