Founder Focus: Michael James Wong of Just Breathe
Michael James Wong is an author, speaker, meditation teacher, community leader and Founder of Just Breathe, an organisation focused on bringing mindfulness into the real world. Internationally recognised as one of the most relevant voice in the modern era of mindfulness, Wong is mission-driven to inspire change, every single day and bring people together in community, connection & quiet.
Just Breathe, which Wong founded back in 2017, is a mindful media network, daily mindfulness app and mass meditation events business is focused on positive change and personal wellbeing both on and offline. His community-centric organisation is recognised around the world for their large scale cultural moments that bring together thousands of people to experience the power of mindfulness. Recent events have seen 1000+ people sit in an en masse at The British Museum, The Tate Turbine Hall, The Shard and many more. Just Breathe is unique in that celebrates music, arts, culture and community as a way to make these mindful practices more relevant in the real world.
Wong is a big believer in the power of this quiet conversation and making the world a little more mindful, one day, and one breath, at a time.
What was Your Eureka Moment?
Just Breathe first started as a series of community events back in London in 2016. The first event I wasn’t sure anyone would show up. We were lucky enough to use a space in the Truman Brewery on an off night, borrowed lots of things from friends and the local community to pull it together. I designed the first flyer for our event on a keynote document on my computer. I wanted to create a space for people to slow down and see these practices in a whole new way.
I had hoped 30-40 ppl would come, and when we opened the doors, 250ppl showed up. Many were friends, or friends of friends, we charged £5 which all went to charity and I explained that Just Breathe was simply about creating a moment where were could all step into something a little quieter together. The event was a combination of live music, spoken word, some community activities and a mass meditation together, it was special.
I started Just Breathe as a way to show that mindfulness and meditation are beneficial to everyone, and wanted to do it in an accessible way. Originally it was only going to be a one-off event. I guess the eureka moment was that first night when I realised that this project was so powerful and had the potential of creating a positive impact all over the world.
Since then, I’ve had many eureka moments, all which have continued to help grow and expand our mission with Just Breathe, and I’m excited to see where and how we keep going from here.
What was your elevator pitch?
When we first launched, people found it hard to understand what our events were all about, mainly because there was nothing else like it in the world. I’d hear people describe Just Breathe in all different ways,
“It’s like Sofar Sounds, but for mindfulness and with a big meditation together at the end”
“It’s like one of those big yoga events, except there’s no yoga, just sitting and meditating”
“It’s an event where you get to talk to strangers and have great conversations, there’s music, spoken word and 20mins of meditation with a lot of people”
These days I advocate the idea that Just Breathe is simply an experience of turning the volume down. If you’re at our events, that can mean many different things for many different people. Now that the business has expanded online to our mindful media platform, content, documentaries, apps, podcasts and more, Just Breathe is really defining just that, an experience of mindfulness in the real world.
How did you test your idea?
I used to believe that before you start anything you need to have a well thought out plan. School project? I’d make a plan. New summer holiday destination? I’d make a plan. New business idea? I’d make a plan. But with Just Breathe, we just started.
Now I’m lucky though that I’ve been a part of the wellness, mindfulness & yoga community for the better part of 20 years, so we weren’t starting from complete zero, in fact I had already previously launched two community lead wellness projects boysofyoga.com & sundayschoolyoga.com, so this was simply a manifestation of something new, but with similar beginnings.
At the end of the day, if you take too much time thinking and planning, you’re missing out on the adventure of the experience. Whether it’s projects or business’s like these, or just the simple act of starting something new, we can only really know when we start. You’re always allowed to stop something that you start, but I believe that the longer you take to start, the more likely you may not start at all.
What advice would you give someone starting their own business?
Starting your own business is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. For me, it has given me the freedom to live each day as I choose, and the inspiration to bring my passions to life and be impactful to the people and communities around me. Starting a business takes hard work and dedication, it requires sacrifices but also persistence. But ultimately, joy, passion and purpose need to be what drives you. The effort is only worth it if the actions are purposeful. The moment the passion stops, I’d rethink what I’m doing. No amount of money or success can equate to true passion.
My simple advice is to focus on your actions, not outcomes, and ensure that your business has joy, passion and purpose at the heart of it.
Do you have a mentor? Are you one?
I have many people in my life that I look to for support. My brother has always been a source of guidance through business and life. My teachers have been essential to my growth as a leader and teacher myself.
I’ve always run my business remembering that I’m a teacher first, or these mindful practices, or ancient wisdom and when in the seat of a teacher I’m merely the vessel in which these learning can be passed on. I still do a lot of mentoring and teaching throughout the year, leading training and working closely with students and young professionals who are starting their own work.
I believe that we all have a responsibility to give and receive support from others in whatever capacity we can. I’m lucky I can do this through different contexts with teaching and business.
Talk us through your morning routine?
Mornings are a special time for me, I prefer early alarm clocks and quiet time. Meditation and simple movements are part of this routine, and so is a nice cup of tea. I used to take a significant amount of time in the morning to wake up and arrive ready for the day ahead, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised that just a few intentional things in the morning set me up just right.
What is the one book you recommend everyone reads?
There is a book from the 1970s called Working, by Stud Terkel, it’s a curated collection of stories about what it means to ‘work’. It’s a beautiful, but sad, understanding of how much the human spirit can endure, but every time I read it, or go back to it, it inspires me to do more with my time, be impactful with my work and continue to do my part to make a positive impact in the world.
What is the most worthwhile investment you’ve made?
As a founder, it’s easy to get swept up on the hustle of the business. I learned at an early age, even before I started a business that you must invest in yourself. Knowledge, rest, inspiration and wellbeing are all so essential for me. I spend a lot of time travelling for inspiration, being a part of communities and experience where I can learn and be around people who have their own passions to share. Running a business isn’t linear, neither is any of life, so I always believe in experiencing many things and letting them inspire my growth.
What one failure are you glad you experienced?
When I was 25 I got made redundant. I worked in the entertainment industry, I thought I was going to live in LA for the rest of my life. Thankfully I was let go, and I was able to let go of that narrow-minded way of thinking. Within a year I had moved to Australia and I haven’t lived in LA since. That was over a decade ago.
If you could go back and do one thing differently, what would it be?
When I was younger and starting out I lived and worked by the numbers. I ticked all the boxes and focused my time on ‘moving up’ in the world. Because of this, I reached what some might call ‘success’ at an early age. But what I missed out on was taking risks, exploring different jobs, and just having fun in my early twenties. I never waited tables or worked in a bar, I never had a boring admin job or worked in a trade. I think I would have learned a lot from those experiences.
If I could do it all again I wouldn’t be in such a rush to be reach the top, because if you do it too quickly the people around you aren’t the people you want to hang out with at that time in your life.
What piece of industry advice do you hear often that you disagree with?
I think a lot of people are trying to get somewhere and focus on how to get there. I’d prefer if we all just focus on being here all the time.
What is your plan B?
These days my life, work and business aren’t about making plans. We don’t really have a plan A, so I guess plan B doesn’t really matter much. I’m happy in what we’re doing today with Just Breathe, my teaching, our community and more. The rest will be decided tomorrow, whenever we arrive there.
What are the future plans of Just Breathe?
Just Breathe is focused on sharing and growing our quiet conversation. Our events will continue in the UK and all over the world, with our local communities and charitable initiatives growing stronger each year. Our podcasts will launch later this year, as well as a big update with the app and our online platform for mindfulness in the real world, will continue to grow.
My only hope is that this organisation is impactful to a growing community and that we’re doing our best to help make these mindful practices relevant in the real world to as many people as we can.
To find out more, visit justbreatheproject.com
To download the Just Breathe app, click here.
You can book tickets to the next Just Breathe event, The Grand Gathering, by clicking here.