Dhyana Yoga: Is It Really Yoga?

As the owner of five wildly successful yoga studios from South Jersey to Rittenhouse, Dhyana Vitarelli may have set more people on the path to enlightenment than any other Philadelphian. So why does Dhyana Yoga have everyone’s chakras in a bunch?

“I never felt okay except when I was doing yoga,” she says. “I had a place to be.”

She returned to L.A. at 28, enrolled in a training program at Yoga West, and crashed on a friend’s couch. And while for the first time in her life she had a plan, she still wasn’t really okay. All it took was a bad breakup and she was back in the ER after, again, swallowing pills.

“Every person gets brought to their knees by something. The thing is to get back up again,” she says. “I figured, All right, you’re stuck alive. So make it work … alive.

Making it work meant moving back to Philly, something she never expected to do. But while visiting her dad in 2002, she hunted for a yoga class and was shocked: Aside from a few small studios and some classes at the Sporting Club, there was hardly any yoga here.

“Philly should have tons of yoga,” she decided. With only the cash in her bank account, she rented a teeny space at 12th and Walnut, painted it, stuffed padding in the drafty windows, and bought some mats. When she applied for a business permit, she needed special zoning—there was nothing in the code that covered “yoga instruction.”

She also had trouble with the name. Web domains for almost every idea she’d written down—Yogaunion, The Bridge Yoga—were taken. There was only one that she liked and could buy: Dhyana Yoga. In Sanskrit, dhyana means “meditation”—one of the eight steps on a yogi’s path to enlightenment.

Dhyana Yoga opened for business on October 5, 2002. Thanks to the pink fliers Diana posted in Center City, announcing, “Let’s have more yogis than hoagies!,” the classes quickly filled up. Pretty soon, she had to turn students away. “There was an energy being cultivated there,” says Marni Sclaroff, who taught the first class at DY. “She lives her yoga. She uses the values and morals from her practice in her daily life.”

The growing band of devotees assumed Diana was Dhyana. She corrected them again and again, until Sclaroff asked: “You’re just going to change your name, aren’t you?”

“I WAS READY TO leave Diana behind,” Dhyana says now, sitting on the back porch of her modest home in Westmont, New Jersey, which she shares with her new and often shirtless super-yogi husband/business partner, John Vitarelli (named by Philly Mag’s GPhilly as “Best Yoga Guru” earlier this year). If Philly has a “yoga power couple,” they’re it. (Both would prefer to be known as, if anything, “the yoga empower couple.”) Down the street in Haddonfield is the newest studio in the DY empire—it opened in December, joining outposts in Rittenhouse, Old City, West Philly and Ardmore.

Pretty much any time on any day of the week, there’s a class at a DY studio. There were 11 students in a recent Haddonfield class. If they all paid the drop-in rate of $15, Dhyana Yoga brought in $165 for the class. With 128 classes held each week in her studios, that’s $21,120 a week for Dhyana Yoga.

Of course, not every class has 11 people (some have more, some fewer), and thanks to discounts and deals, some people pay less. Yet no matter what that total may be, classes aren’t where most studios make money: The real rupees come from events and workshops, which at DY can run anywhere from a few bucks to more than $100. (Dhyana has at least eight scheduled between now and December.) Teacher trainings (DY averages about 65 students a year) typically run $2,100, for another $136,500 or so.

Sure, Dhyana and John have to pay rent and teachers, but Dhyana still drives a Lexus (hybrid, of course). And that’s a far cry from thousands of years ago, when yogis relied on townspeople to pay their rent and buy their food. “Now the exchange is a paycheck,” Dhyana says.

“Candles and toilet paper cost money,” echoes Corina Benner, who owns Wake Up Yoga’s three studios and is probably Dhyana’s main competitor, if either yogi were willing to admit it. (And they’re not.)

This isn’t about making money for Dhyana, though. It’s more about making family. The more studios she has (she’s not planning on opening more, because “My husband will kill me”) and the more people she trains, the bigger that family gets. “Ultimately, we’re yogis. We need community,” Dhyana explains. “I think that’s the X factor in making Dhyana Yoga as successful as it is. We’re family. Maybe that was the deep desire of mine, what I’ve always wanted.”