Meditation, mindfulness and mental health have become for many of us part of an every daily routine and for others we are still discovering what these topics involve and what they mean to us. We have had the opportunity to sit with Michael James Wong, a leading voice in the yoga community, founder of Just Breathe, Boys of Yoga, Sunday School Yoga and published author who is dedicated to expanding the awareness around mind and mental health. We've covered his origins, the journey in creating Just Breathe through to today where he is in this world. We hope you enjoy reading this as much as we enjoyed the conversation.
For those of our community who haven’t yet met you, can you give us a brief summary of who you are and some of your work in the yoga community to date?
Hi yogi’s, my name is Michael, born in New Zealand, raised in Santa Monica, California and now live in London with my girlfriend & puppy Gus. As a teacher my work is dedicated to building and celebrating strong communities in the yoga and meditation space and have been lucky to be a part of many amazing yoga communities over the past 29 years of practice and teaching.
These days I spend my time focused on two main initiatives; our SSY teacher trainings, supporting and developing new and established teachers diving deeper into the practice, and our Just Breathe community of mindfulness in the real world, through events, courses, app, content and more.
I travel extensively (pre-pandemic) and run teacher training programmes in the UK, Sweden, Ireland, US, Australia and more, while also participating in yoga and wellness festivals worldwide.
Over recent years I’ve been at Yoga Games in Sweden for the past 5 years, guided the yoga and meditation at 15+ Wanderlusts all around the globe and been lucky to be invited to teach yoga in town I grew up in, Wellington, New Zealand.
But above all else, Yoga has given me a life, family, friends, culture and the most meaningful sense of community.
You’ve previously described yourself as an “introvert”. How have you taken this and pivoted it to become a renowned speaker and guide for so many?
I am still an introvert, I enjoy quiet moments, solitude, books and deep inwardness, but I also appreciate the magnitude of rich human connections. My first nature has always been on the quieter side, but it doesn’t mean that is where I always want to be. Learning to speak in public, teach in front of big groups and be a outward with my enthusiasm is something that taught me how to be a better human, these moments challenge me to step into more and lead by example that we are never confined by labels or our comforts. So I would say it’s not really a pivot, but rather an evolution.
You have multiple irons in the fire at any one time by the looks of things. What is it that is taking most of your focus right now and what are you building that towards?
My biggest focus at the moment is enjoying life and spending time with my family, friends and enjoying a quieter pace of life. For the past 10 years as teacher, speaker and founder, I’ve been on the go; traveling, writing books, leading teacher training, building business and community. All of these will stay as part of my life, but not the full focus.
I suppose age and a whole year at home has help me refine what makes me happy.
Boys of Yoga is what many of us know you from first, what’s currently going on with this project?
I’m forever grateful that this project reached so many people and gave them inspiration and access into the world of yoga. We are keeping the movement going, albeit in a simpler way. But coming up we are launching a few new projects, initiative and programmes around it to really help ensure there is the easy access for all men (and women) to see their place within the practice. Watch this space (and follow the page!) @boysofyoga
We are here to learn more about Just Breathe. Can you sum the app up very briefly for us?
Just Breathe is a community lead organisation dedicated to shifting the conversation around meditation, mindfulness and mental health. We are mission driven to ensure that we can support people and communities with resource, access, tool and techniques to ensure they can live life with less stress, anxiousness and a strain on their health and mental wellbeing.
These days, for obvious reasons with the pandemic, we are focused on our digital products, expanding our brilliant Just Breathe app, as well as sharing stories and conversations throughout podcast and digital content and courses. Our events, in time, will return, and we are continuing to see how we can build our quiet conversation into a meaningful message that cannot be ignored.
What was it that made you realise that the world needed this out there?
Now more than ever it’s easy to see that our mental health is greatly impacted by the state of the world. The pandemic has isolated so many of us from friends, family and social interaction. And so, digital community becomes a pivotal way in which we can endure the current state of the world. In my own life I’ve experienced loneliness, disconnection, currently as I’m writing this, I haven’t seen my parents and family in almost 2 years, so the challenges are very raw for me personally.
As a teacher first, and everything else second, I’m dedicated to be of service, in whatever way I can be. Our team is extraordinary and together we’re able to do our part to build and share these resources.
With many different meditation apps now on the market what is that is setting Just Breathe apart?
I don’t want Just Breathe to be different, I want to be in support and service. There are many offerings out there, and I’m very happy to recommend to anyone a number of apps that could suit them better than ours. My belief is any meditation app is better than no meditation app.
That being said, one the Just breathe app we are focused on three things; simplicity, relevancy and support. All our meditation are no more than 8mins, there is a single app delivered to your home screen daily, all practices are simple and supportive. We’ve worked hard, to ensure that the app experience is extremely mindful from the moment you click on the icon on your phone. It was important for us to minimise options and expanded offerings. People these days are bombarded with choices and endless scrolling on apps and phones, it was critical that the Just Breathe app, wasn’t that.
The app is also the only place where you’ll find many exclusive guided meditation, I’m most excited by a collaboration we have with one of the worlds most well loved musician and DJ/Producer, Sol Rising. Not only is his music the anthem to modern meditation and yoga around the world, he is also a really good friend and together we’ve created some really special practices.
Can you tell us a little more about the people behind Just Breathe and what a few of these people bring to the app?
We have a team of amazing people and what you see on the app wouldn’t be possible without a few key people. Niki Priest has been our Creative Director and one of my good friends for many, many years. She’s been the creative and strategic force behind BOYS OF YOGA, Sunday School Yoga and now Just Breathe. She’s designed and illustrated all my books and is a really special person and talent. If you’ve ever seen a splash of colour or beautifully design graphic on any our projects, you can be 100% certain that this was created through the brilliant perspective of Niki. Even more, we have the same exact birthday! So it’s a perfect team!
Another person who has done amazing things for the app is Avery Putterman, she is our producer, as well as a yoga and meditation teacher herself. She produces everything year, whether it’s the guided meditations on the app or our weekly episodes of THE QUIET LIFE podcast.
We also have so many supporters, collaborators and friends within the community. Whether they’re part of a project, working on an event, part of our teacher training team, our efforts across app projects are really all community lead. I’m so honoured to be surrounded by such amazing people.
Just Breath seems to be unique in the fact that you don’t just offer a digital space but also bring people together for events. Can you tell us a little about these meet ups and where people can find the next event close to them?
Just Breathe is, and will always be, community first. We are about bringing people together for real human connection. For the first few years all our efforts were on our events, we’ve done amazing mass meditation at some of the most iconic places around the country and at festival and events around the world. We’ve brought 1,000+ people into the British Museum for an evening of music, conversation, spoken word and group meditation, it was so very special, and we will continue to do these when the world steadies out again.
All our events are listed on the website, www.justbreatheproject.com
And you can watch this little video to see more about who we are, and what we do,
How does the app fit into the ever changing landscape of an individual's life?
We see the app as an essential lifestyle support. With the way of the world, I believe that everyone should have immediate access to mindfulness tool in an immediate and accessible way. In times of stress or anxiousness, open the app and do today’s daily practice. If you have more time to explore, you can try our a few or find the ones you resonate with. If you’ve got some extra time to kill, instead of scrolling your phone, you can listen to some of the Words to Live By talks and gain some special insights about life and our wellbeing.
What advice would you give those out there who say “mediation isn’t for me, I find my calm through movement”? What do you think they can gain from this practice?
If you’ve tried meditation and it didn’t feel valuable for you, that’s ok. But don’t give up completely. Often the first experience is too dramatic and loaded with expectations. We want something good to happen, something mind blowing and when it doesn’t happen, they we can feel deterred.
As a practice meditation can come in many different ways and there is many different styles, the same way that food and exercise have many different options or taste. Movement is a great form of meditation, so if that gives you peace of mind, calmness and ease, then do that, but perhaps, try again and give yourself the permission to simply sit without need or wanting something more to happen. Often the greatest value of any meditation practice is simply the time not doing, non-striving and being a willing participate in slowing down and doing less. And if these are the actions, then don’t worry too much about needing to to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’, reframe the time as valuable and beneficial for you life and wellbeing.
How was the evolution of the app from Beta into the product we see today? What was the biggest learning you took during this product development?
Like all things in life, there is usually more than meets the eye. Expanding from our beta version gave us the insights to learn how to best offer a meaningful experience. It would have been easy to say we need more and more content, lots of variety, many teachers and all kinds of gimmick and gadgets. But through the process, less is more, simplicity leads the way. From all our friends and community who have downloaded and joined our App community, the feedback has been resoundingly positive on how simple and easy to use it is. If people are using meditation apps, it’s because they need support or a quick way to de-stress, so it’s imperative not the complicate the process. If people are using the app as a ritual and positive practice, then we want them to have a gentle and unencumbered experience.
The last 18 months of the COVID pandemic have created a huge shift in everyone’s lifestyle and for many this has allowed them to focus more on their mental and physical well being. How have you seen the impact of Just Breath across the community?
One of the biggest positives from the pandemic has been the urgent need for our health and wellbeing. This has become a priority for everyone. We are committed to continuing this narrative and helping to show that our health is an essential and necessary focus of our daily lives.
How have you kept yourself motivated and what’s been your draw of inspiration over this last year?
I find my inspiration and motivation in the service of others and our wellbeing. Everyday is just another day to help. I’ve had many moments this year chatting at length to friends and people within the community, joining in online yoga classes and just generally being open to seeing how life unfolds one day at a time.
Even more, the slow pace has given me more energy, not needing to live out a travel bag week to week has been great, and welcoming Gus (the cavapoochon) into the family has really been such for my lifestyle and mental health.
I look forward to where we go from here, whatever comes next.
Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts, please get in touch and stay connected.