Nick Knowles is a changed man. Last year the DIY SOS presenter jetted off to Thailand to detox. He spent three weeks learning to do yoga, meditate and enjoy a vegan diet – and it was all documented in the BBC2 series The Retreat.
At first, he was sceptical and grouchy; by the end he was happier, healthier and a believer. Since then, he’s published a meat-free cookbook, put his name to two vegan restaurants and now he’s starting his own yoga retreat in the Maldives.
He tells us why he’ll never be totally vegan and why retreats aren’t just for health obsessives.
So have you managed to stick to the healthy lifestyle?
Predominantly yes. I’m flexitarian: I eat vegan 80% of the time, vegetarian 5% of the time and meat about 5%. And I’ve mostly cut dairy out. Once every three months, I have a big cheese night. It makes me feel really ill the next day but I still like it.
Why don’t you give up meat completely?
If I’m out at the rugby and I smell fried onions and fancy a hotdog, I’ll have one. Or if a friend’s cooked a chicken casserole because they don’t know I’ve changed my diet, I’d rather eat it than make them feel bad.
I’m a realist. I know that if I put myself on a vegan diet permanently, there’s a very good chance I’ll fall off it and go back to my old ways.
Did you stop smoking completely?
I used to smoke 20 or 30 a day before I went to Thailand and I’ve probably smoked 40 cigarettes since I got back 18 months ago. If I’m out at a party or I’m particularly stressed, I allow myself one but I try not to beat myself up.
I’m still doing some yoga and I’ve been inspired to take up jogging again after doing the Mind Over Marathon series with Prince William and Harry. Three or four times a week, I give myself 20 minutes at the beginning of the day to do some yoga moves and get the body working.
You lost nine kilos over the course of The Retreat. Have you kept the weight off?
I’ve put a few back on because I brought out a vegan and veggie cookbook a couple of months ago called Proper Healthy Food. Recently I’ve been preparing book two, which basically means that I’ve been eating a lot!
And you’ve also gone into the restaurant business?
Yeah, I’ve got two vegan restaurants now – one in Richmond and one in Shrewsbury. I’ve never going to make a fortune off them but I think there’s a real connection between good eating and good mental health.
I’d say 90% of the diners aren’t vegans – probably aren’t even vegetarians – but they know its healthier for them. Everyone sees veganism as sucking the fun out of life but it’s a happy thing.
So how did you end up starting your own retreat?
A friend of mine got a job in the Maldives, working on a new island resort, and she showed The Retreat to her bosses who loved the idea. So they invited me to start running retreats out there with a therapeutic yoga teacher called Luke Bache who appeared in the programme.
Knowles’ retreat is at Kandima Maldives
It costs over £3,000 for a week. Why should people shell out?
Basically the idea is that people can reset their lives in the way that I did. So you can learn how to do yoga, how to control your breathing so you’re calmer during the day and sleep better at night. We can reset how you eat. So over the course of the week you should learn a lot of things while being in an amazing setting. The island’s got beautiful long beaches, walks through tropical forestry and the biggest children’s play area in the Maldives.
What will be your role?
I’ll be taking part in the yoga classes and teaching people how to make healthy vegan meals, and hopefully giving them a new outlook on life.
So is this the end of DIY SOS and your TV career?
Nah, I’ll still be doing DIY SOS and I’ve just shot a pilot of a food and wellness travelogue where I go in search of vegan and veggie food and at the same time try some wellness things that are good for mind, body and spirit. There are some really freaky ways around the world that people try and look after their heads, so it makes for quite an entertaining programme. I hope we’ll have it on air in the next six months.
Will there be a second series of The Retreat?
We were disappointed that the BBC didn’t want a second series, even though each episode got a million viewers. A lot of people are realising the importance of mental wellbeing and mindfulness, so I think it’s an area of growing interest.
Go on, give us the hard sell. What should people who aren’t into health fads do a retreat?
When I went to Thailand, I was in the middle of the busiest time of my life and thinking “I haven’t got time for this”. But I needed to find a way to slow my brain down, to get in control of my life, and it wasn’t happening. That 23 days that I took out to think about how I could breathe better, sleep better, control my weight better and make better decisions were critical for my life going forward.
In the lunacy of the modern world, you can actually find space and time to be less stressed and more present for your family, for work and for play. You’ll come back a different person.
Places on Relax, Reset and Evolve are available from $3,800 (£3,340) per person, based on two sharing or $5,375 (£4,300) for single occupancy. Price includes all activities mentioned and full-board accommodation. For booking and further information on Kandima Maldives, go to kandima.com
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