Within the unassuming walls of the Quiet Storm Dojo in Wilmington, 84-year-old sensei Rick Berry has spent 28 years guiding his students toward self-improvement through the martial art of aikido. But he doesn’t just teach it, he lives it. In the lobby, the sensei’s personal mantra hangs on the wall: “The life you live is the lesson you teach.”
The Chester, Pennsylvania, native discovered martial arts in 1966 when he took his first karate class. At the time, the U.S. Army veteran and pipefitter for BP Oil was disillusioned by the corporate environment. Martial arts provided an alternative path. Since then, he’s attained a black belt in various disciplines, including taekwondo and jujitsu. And he’s as humble as he is skilled. “Black belt doesn’t mean master,” he says. “It means the beginning of serious study.”
Despite inside “geriatric” jokes about those who frequent the studio, practitioners all move with youthful agility. The class opens with some exercises—backbends, wrist stretches, spine twists—led by a tenured student as sensei Berry looks on. After the warmup, the group tumbles, or “throws,” across the mat, crisscrossing in the shape of a figure-eight. Berry moves in to direct. The thwack of bodies hitting the floor is both jarring and melodic as the students somersault like nimble toddlers.
Despite the clunky physicality of the practice, Berry stresses the peacefulness at the core of aikido. “Most other martial arts are designed to completely repel and destroy the [opponent], but we teach how to create harmony,” he explains.
Even the language is carefully nonviolent. (They prefer the term uke over attacker, which means he who receives the throw.) “We don’t get into that manifestation of conflict,” the sensei says. “We try not to cause any undue harm.” According to Berry, aikido can be difficult to learn because it aims to use timing, momentum and rhythm over physical strength. A wall poster iterates four principles Berry learned from his own teacher: calmness, correct posture, relaxation and a positive mind.
His oldest student, 74-year-old Nathaniel “Nick” Nichols, has been practicing since the early 1980s. The retired judge of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas says his practice greatly impacted the last decade of his professional life. “I saw a lot of trauma and anger in the courtroom,” he says. “I would make sure to come in calm, so that people would hopefully be calm too. …I’d ask an open-ended question and let the juvenile respond. Just like [in aikido], if somebody comes in and they punch at you, we don’t conflict with it, we go with it. Then we’re able to resolve in a nice way.”
One thing’s for sure: Berry defies the conventional boundaries of age. His vitality radiates energy that belies the passage of time. (He could easily pass for 20 years younger.) It’s no wonder students travel far and wide to learn from him. Although the dojo sees its fair share of retirees, students of all ages (the youngest is 7) and occupations have come here to train. The sensei is not just an instructor; he’s a living embodiment of the principles he imparts, a testament to the transformative power of aikido that seems to have reversed the clock on his own existence.
So, what’s his real secret to aging well? “I learned a long time ago to relax,” he says. “The whole idea is not fighting.” He tells a story of meeting his teacher from Japan, whom he expected to be very serious. “He liked to laugh and kid and joke,” the sensei recalls. “He told us, point blank, ‘Relaxation is technique. The more you relax, the more comfortable you get, the longer you live.’ It made sense.”
His students agree. Clinical therapist Matthew Ditty, 44, says, “I want to be like sensei when I grow up. I feel like by the time I’m 80, I’ll be good at this.”