Michael James Wong knows more than a thing or two about the benefits of mindfulness, particularly when it comes to travel. A yoga teacher and meditation guide who has lived on three continents, Michael teaches all over the world on his mission to expand and empower the global wellness community.
We caught up with him to talk selfies, stretching and terribly tacky snow globes.
Where was your last trip?
I was in Utrecht for the Happinez festival; it’s all about well-being, music, culture and community and they do it with a spirit of bringing the Netherlands together. It’s held in an old island fort outside the city. It sounds cheesy, but it’s an island of happiness; there are musicians from around the world, one or two guest yoga teachers like me, locals teachers, lots of talks, good food... It was fun.
Where is your next trip?
Zurich. I’m going to do a teacher training immersion, plus yoga and meditation workshops. Zurich is up and coming – the wellness community there is really starting to build. It has that feel of a city that works by the clock, so people there have an appetite for ways to take a step back and find a bit more space instead of always living by rules and regulations, deadlines and details.
What is your first travel-related memory?
I’ve been an immigrant since I was two years old. I’ve lived all over and travelled to lots of places but I was born in New Zealand, so the first memory I have is of moving to LA. Growing up we always went on adventures back to New Zealand. It was important to my family that we grew up as Kiwis. Every time we went back we’d visit the grandparents, but also go on a tour of the countryside, or go climb mountains or hike and see waterfalls. In hindsight it was amazing, but at the time it was boring – when you’re 10 years old and all your friends are going to Hawaii or whatever.
Aisle or window seat?
Always an aisle. I like to be able to get up and down just because it’s good to move the body, but also, I don’t like to feel boxed in. If you sit on the aisle seat, you aren’t accountable to anyone, you don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to go to the bathroom, you can do what you want.
Do you have any travel habits or rituals? Something you can’t travel without?
Whenever I travel, I always take the same luggage. My brother got married in Bali two and half years ago and – it’s a long story – but there was a fiasco with the luggage and I ended up having to buy an extra carry on: I chose the most ostentatious neon orange backpack to make light of the situation – so now I have this bright orange backpack that I take with me on every single trip. It reminds me of my family, but it also helps new people identify me in a crowd. Look for the guy with the luminous backpack!
Favourite city or country or region?
My fondest memories are from two places. Firstly, Japan. I loved my trip there six or seven years ago – it was right after my sister graduated university and it was the first time we had travelled together on a long trip.
The other place is India. I’ve been a few times; it’s really special to me because of the work I do. The first time I went with one of my best friends I had when growing up. We spent half the time doing the Taj Mahal and all that stuff which was really fun, and then we went deep into the foothills of the Himalayas, Rishikesh and all the places where there’s a deeper connection to my practice. This was back before the region went a bit cool… These days you can get a flat white or an almond latte, but when I first went your options were tea or tea.
What has been your most challenging travel experience?
Also India! The reason I love it so much is because it’s so challenging. It can be unrelenting at times. On one journey from Jaipur to Agra, the bus pulled over at midnight for a bathroom stop. If you were going to bury a body this would be the spot for it – it was so dark. I went to the bathroom, and when I came back there was a guy with a soldering iron under the bus and sparks were flickering. Apparently, the brakes were no longer working.
So we’re in the middle of nowhere, it’s pitch black and the options are to get on a bus that may or may not have working brakes, or stay here, because there’s another bus coming in the morning. We got back on the bus, because why not…? (It was fine.) That’s the nature of travelling in India – you have to make life choices in a split second.
What is your best or worst travel souvenir?
I buy what I consider to be the best worst magnet from any city I go to. I’ve also started a new thing: I have a good friend from Los Angeles who is one of these people who is pristinely minimal in all aspects of his life. So every time I travel I bring him back the silliest snow globe I can find, but he’s too nice to not accept it or throw it out. His beautiful house now has a collection of about 20 snowglobes to remind him of me.
What is the best piece/worst piece of travel advice you’ve received?
If there are no locals in the restaurant you’re looking at, you probably shouldn’t eat there.
What’s your biggest travel fail?
This is the worst... I was meeting my friend in Barcelona for four days and planned to continue to Madrid alone. I landed in Barcelona, took a bus to the centre, then got busy looking at my map… walking around like a tourist, trying to find the hotel. This guy comes up and goes ‘oh, you got bird poo on your shoulder – don’t worry, I’ll help you. I’m just going to the beach, here’s my towel’. So he towels me down and I remember these exact words coming out of my mouth: ‘Thank you so much, Spanish people are so nice’...
Five minutes later: where’s my wallet? I spent the rest of the day at the police station, where scams like this are so common they just laugh at you and ask ‘How’d they get you?’ as you look around to see nineteen other people in the same predicament. I had to cancel my Madrid trip and come home early…
Quick, an asteroid is going to hit the earth in one week! Which is the one travel dream you’d rush to fulfil? Is there anywhere you’re really keen to visit?
I’ve always grown up in different countries, so I have a lot of friends in different places. I’d go home to see my parents, to see the people that I’m closest to. A one-week trip to Sydney, LA, New Zealand – anywhere I’ve called home.
Does yoga have an impact on the way you travel, and if so, how?
Yoga is a mindset; a way to live life or to receive the world around you. It asks you to accept, acknowledge and appreciate that there are different opinions, different ways of life, different truths and that the reality is that it’s not about people or countries being right or wrong – people simply have different experiences and lifestyles.
Over the years yoga has allowed me to see that and helped me to appreciate everyone for who they are. That mindset changes the way you look at things; you don’t get so stressed or worried if you miss a flight – it’s just another chance to hang out with people in the city you’re in!
Yoga, Instagram and beautiful destinations are social media dynamite – but where in the world would you love to have a digital detox?
I think the best place to go is anywhere there’s no wifi. These days people live behind their screens to capture a moment, rather than experience it. For me personally, I really love and appreciate the outdoors and the beauty of it all, but what’s really important is the experience you have there. It sounds crass but a mountain is a mountain is a mountain… it’s the hike that you have that makes it special.
Take Iceland for example. There’s a lot of beauty there that doesn’t show up on a photograph; people try to capture it, and the landscape is obviously beautiful, but there’s a difference between taking a photo and being there. Sure, you can take a shot doing yoga on a glacier but the magnitude of the experience is far greater in reality.
Do you have any pose recommendations for travellers wanting to stretch on a flight?
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend doing a downward dog in the aisle of the aeroplane because that’s a bit weird. It’s important to keep circulation going, but it’s nothing fancy. You’re sitting for a long time with a curved spine and your knees are bent so basic things like allowing the head, neck and shoulders to release by bending forward, keeping the legs active so you don’t cut off circulation to your lower half are useful. There are no specific poses. Just move the spine and move the body – get up and walk around as much as possible.
The other trick I do is improvise with back support. Aeroplane seats aren’t good for posture. Put a pillow behind you to support your lower back and change the curvature of your spine so you’re more supported, which helps avoid lower back tightness.
Where’s next on the yoga cool radar?
Scandinavia. Germany. Asia. Places that people typically think of when they think yoga are US, Canada and Australia, but as far as communities go, places like Sweden, Hong Kong and Singapore are developing massive communities for yoga and wellness. In Bulgaria the yoga community has grown rapidly, going from two studios to about 50 studios in the last 18 months alone.
Any advice for first-time travellers?
Don’t be afraid to say yes. Most times when you’re in a new place your immediate reaction is to say no. No, I don’t want to try that, no I don’t want to go there, no I don’t want to pay to go up to the top level… it’s better to say yes and have the experience than say no and miss out.
Find out more about Michael’s latest projects at michaeljameswong.com or follow him on Instagram @michaeljameswong.