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?

Building a family is seriously yogic. It might be the most yogic thing of all—creating- a community with a common purpose, or a “sangha,” as the Buddhists call it. (Yogis love the Buddhists.) Really, the reason to teach yoga is to, one by one, get everyone on Earth into the sangha. But in the end, is Dhyana building Dhyana Yoga’s family, or is she building Dhyana’s family? Or are they one and the same? (As one Philly yogi notes, “When I refer to Dhyana, I don’t call her Dhyana. I call her ‘Dhyana Yoga.’”)

The business is “her offspring,” says Justicia DeClue, who co-owns the Ardmore studio. “It’s her mark on the world. It’s her.”

But if it is, indeed, her, then the spiritual part gets sticky. Because that’s ego. That, suggest some local yogis, borders on a cult of personality. As everyone points out: This is all very personal to Dhyana. And in this business, when the line between personal and professional is so fine, the line between what yoga is and isn’t gets fuzzy as well. Stories float around the yoga community about Dhyana’s nasty blowups over perceived breaches of loyalty. Several Dhyana students and teachers, upon disagreeing with her or moving on to other studios, have been told, in so many words: “If you’re not with me, you can’t be here at all.” In the corporate world, Dhyana would be praised for her chutzpah. But in the yoga business, she’s criticized.

“I like people around me to be as committed as I am,” Dhyana explains. “I’ve put everything into this, and I like people around me to be an energetic match.”

She gives commitment back. When Dhyana found out a student—one she barely knew—was pregnant and the father was refusing to be involved, she stepped in. “Somebody had to,” she says. She went to every doctor’s appointment; she was in the delivery room, the first one to hold the baby.

But there’s a point at which all that personal energy interferes with the professional. At a DY teacher training years ago, one trainee remembers, Dhyana—the person responsible for training hundreds of people to teach yoga—broke down in tears, explaining to the class that she’d just split up with her boyfriend. The trainee quit, along with a couple others. While the program wasn’t short on emotion, she thought it was short on instruction. “I don’t know enough to teach this,” she thought at the time. “I don’t know anything.”

Not all graduates agree. “I had a good experience,” says one. “I thought it was a great jumping-off point,” says another, who went on to study a more classic yoga style.

That’s how a lot of yogis think of Dhyana Yoga—yoga for the masses. The Starbucks of Philly yoga. Solid. Spiritual, with occasional fancy carmellato-frappe-type options. (DY has offered Jedi Yoga, and Acro-yoga, and Avatar yoga, where students painted each other’s bodies with fluorescent paint and practiced under a black light.)

Wake Up Yoga’s Benner thinks the circusy yoga styles “damage the tradition,” she says. “But we need all kinds of different yoga to get people on the path.”

And that, every yoga studio owner agrees, is where the walls come down, where the politics stop. Everyone wants the same thing—to get Philadelphians on the path.

“No matter what people say, I’m still doing yoga,” Dhyana says. “I’m not selling porn or guns or something. Whether they like it or not, I’m still doing something good.”

A FEW WEEKS BEFORE Dhyana started the summer intensive-training program, she posted a cryptic Facebook status: “Making space.” She was hinting to her nearly 5,000 friends that she needed to make space in her body. For a baby.

“John would be the greatest dad,” she says. She doesn’t seem as convinced about her own maternal abilities, even though she’s been parenting studios and students for nearly 10 years. Maybe she needed that feeling of family to buttress her for starting a real one. Certainly, the word describing her on her mobile would no longer be “alone.”

More than in her body, though, Dhyana needs to make space in her life (even if, when John’s out of earshot, she whispers about opening a retreat center in Italy). Being a yoga mogul is a lot of work. So, slowly but surely, she’s passing off responsibilities. John’s now doing the marketing and accounting. Dhyana has plans to bring on another co-owner to manage a studio, and she wants to get back to doing more teaching.

“I want us to be awesome at our craft so we’ll be the elders of the community someday,” says John, imagining studios running themselves and students coming from far and wide to study with Philly’s empower couple. But that means passing the torch and letting go. And Dhyana’s not so good at letting go.

“Your job as a teacher is to make your students 10 times stronger than you,” Dhyana explained to the newbies in her summer training program. The students frantically wrote her words in their notebooks. She’s their guru, after all. And what she teaches them, they’ll teach their students, and so on, and so on. That’s how yoga works.

“So when you’re finished with this training, you’ll need to be 10 times better than me,” Dhyana added. “And I’m killing it.”