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?

Dhyana is grooving on the harmonium. Like, seriously. Like, eyes closed and swaying, sitting cross-legged on the bamboo floor in front of a statue of an Indian deity in her West Philly yoga studio, wearing raspberry leggings and a gray shirt hanging off her shoulder, Flashdance-style.

She’s chanting, too. Like, seriously. Like, asking the elephant god Ganesha to protect the 19 people sitting in front of her, all of them chanting along because they’re supposed to, though some squint one eye open as if to confirm that this beautiful, tanned 40 year old with henna designs on her hands and Sanskrit tattoos on her feet is still pumping away at the part-accordion, part-piano that sounds part-Bollywood, probably even to some of them.

They’re mostly newbies, after all. This is the first day of their training in the Dhyana Yoga summer intensive program—nine hours a day for five weeks—to learn to become yoga teachers. No. To learn to become Dhyana Yoga teachers. And if you’re trained by Dhyana (pronounced “Dee-ahn-ah)—who is really Dhyana Vitarelli (who is actually Diana D’Amato) but is known in the yoga community as, simply, “Dhyana”—you’ll be chanting. A lot. In fact, if you’re trained by Dhyana at Dhyana Yoga and then teach Dhyana Vinyasa—a term that Dhyana the yogi coined early this summer—at one of her five Dhyana Yoga studios, you’ll be chanting in every class you teach. That’s the Dhyana way.

“Coming back from chanting,” she says dreamily, after a long, loud om, “it’s like being in a spaceship.”

Perhaps so, especially for a woman whose business has skyrocketed since Philly’s yoga boom -started in 2002, when she first opened at 12th and Walnut. Since then, she’s moved her flagship studio to a more high-profile space near Rittenhouse, opened four more studios, and trained 350 to 400 people to be yoga teachers—so many that local yoga diehards wonder if the place is just a “yoga factory.” Still, there’s agreement on this: Dhyana has the biggest yoga business in town.

But a “yoga business” is a tricky thing. “Yoga” and “business” go together about as well as water and sesame oil. The 5,000-year-old discipline is all about not competing, and not harming, and no ego, and basically “We are all one”—not exactly the tenets of America’s free-market economy.

The inherent conflict between spiritualism and capitalism is so daunting for yogis—and there are more than 16 million people doing yoga nationwide, spending $5.7 billion a year, which is up 87 percent since 2004—that it’s a topic of workshops at Yoga Journal conferences, the industry’s U.N. general assembly. Running a business means making money. And in yoga, making money means getting more people onto your bamboo floor than are on the bamboo floor down the street. And getting the most people means marketing and branding your asana off, which is very … well … unyogic.

“I don’t believe in my heart you can run a lucrative yoga business and still stick to the yoga philosophies,” says one former local studio owner.

And in Philly, where there now seem to be more yoga studios than Wawas, who runs the most lucrative yoga business? Dhyana. Who has the most studios? Dhyana. The biggest “market share”? Dhyana. Who offers the most workshops and trains the most teachers and manages the most Facebook friends (4,701!)? Dhyana. Who blogs and tweets? Dhyana. Who is the closest thing in Philly to a yogalebrity? Dhyana.

There’s no doubt: Dhyana has mastered the business of selling yoga. But is it still yoga that she’s selling?

TO UNDERSTAND HOW Dhyana Yoga works, you need to understand Dhyana. Which is weird. Because Dhyana Yoga came before Dhyana.

Back in 2002, when she rented that first space, she was still “Diana.” But being Diana had never been easy.

Fourteen months after Diana D’Amato was born in 1971 at Crozer-Chester Medical Center, her mother died, suddenly, of a cerebral hemorrhage. Diana’s dad, a physician-in-training, was so distraught that he couldn’t take care of his daughter. So she pinballed around Chester, from aunts to grandparents, until her dad got it together- when she was seven and moved with her to Lancaster County. In school, she worked hard to make him proud. But with no coordination—“At all,” she clarifies—she was far from popular in a school that revered sports. So she spent summers at horse camp and the school year buried under black eyeliner, listening to Depeche Mode.

“I attempted to take my life for the first time when I was 14,” she admits, the candor barely ruffling her steady, New Age-y tone. She’d just been kicked out of boarding school—where she’d been shipped after her dad remarried—for flooding the dorm mother’s room. Her dad was furious. She thought, Okay, I’ll go see my mom. And she took a bunch of pills.

Diana had her stomach pumped and went to counseling. Two years later, her 11th-grade class made mobiles with pictures hanging around a word that described their lives. “My word was ‘alone,’” she says. “The teacher marked points off, and wrote that what I meant was ‘lonely.’ That’s not what I meant. ‘Lonely’ wasn’t what I meant.”

Five days after arriving at the University of San Diego—“as far away as I could go without leaving the continent”—she took her first yoga class, a last-resort phys-ed credit. After class, the teacher patted her on the back and said, “See you Thursday.” Diana thought, She’s telling me to come back. I must be okay at this.

From that day forward, she did yoga. Always. Through her international-relations degree, through jobs programming at California radio stations, through quitting it all and traveling for a year, there was one constant—yoga. While living for three months in a Mongolian yurt, she had an epiphany: to make her life about yoga.