“The things we cut out of our lives, like exercise, are the stress relievers we need,” said Deb Corbiel. Few activities combine exercise and stress relief better than kickboxing and Corbiel has been teaching it at the Forest Park Park District for the past two years. Teaching this strenuous class has not only gotten Corbiel into remarkable shape. It’s helped relieve the stress that comes with working a full-time job and being a single mother of four.

Corbiel didn’t start out to be a kickboxer. Five years ago, she signed up at The Park for an aerobics class. The class was canceled and replaced by kickboxing. Corbiel liked it instantly. “I got hooked. Kickboxing makes you feel like you’ve had a workout”like you’ve accomplished something.”

Plus it has the positive side effect of enabling students to defend themselves. Not that Corbiel has any illusions about overpowering an attacker. “Kickboxing gives me the brains and the power to get one good lick in and take off running.”

After Corbiel had taken the class for three years, the Park’s instructor moved to California. Corbiel was asked to take over. She received her certification after attending an all-day seminar and passing a test. But this course didn’t include learning how to overcome stage fright. “I was scared to death to have everyone staring at me,” Corbiel recalled.

After those first class jitters, though, she was fine. She soon attracted a following at The Park and then branched out to teaching kickboxing on Saturday mornings at Ascension School in Oak Park. One of her students likes kickboxing so much, she attends The Park classes on Monday and Wednesday evenings and works out at Ascension from 7:30 to 8:30 on Saturday mornings. Her doctor recently told the woman she’s in the best shape of her life.

Corbiel normally has 16-17 students in her Park District classes. Although it’s billed as a co-ed activity, her students are all female. “I asked one of my former male students why men are hesitant to come to kickboxing. He said it’s because the class is way too hard, and we don’t take any breaks.” Corbiel also believes it’s because she teaches a non-contact class and men may prefer having an object to punch.

There may be no actual combat at Corbiel’s classes but kickboxing is certainly an aggressive sport. Corbiel said she doesn’t yell at her students but tries to encourage them to push themselves. She’s seen some of her students lose weight and develop more stamina.

Corbiel has lived in Forest Park for eight years. Her children range in age from 16 to 9, and Forest Park has been an ideal community for raising them. “Forest Park reminds me of the Oak Park of my childhood,” Corbiel said. “People are friendly and watching out for each other.” Corbiel’s kids have plenty of neighbors to play with and they organize games on Wilcox Street, not far from the firehouse. It’s like they’re experiencing childhood the way it was 30 years ago.

Four years ago, though, something happened that made Corbiel appreciate Forest Park even more. It also made her take a look at her own life. “I’m a single mom on a tight schedule,” said Corbiel, who is a credit analyst for Community Bank of Oak Park-River Forest, “My son fell in The Park and broke his arm. The Park District workers were fabulous. They drove my other kids home, while I went in the ambulance.” While her son was being treated, Corbiel reflected on “how unimportant my schedule really was.” This shift in thinking, along with kickboxing, has helped Corbiel reduce her anxiety level.

First-foot experience
Just talking about kickboxing didn’t seem adequate for this article, so I overcame my natural aversion to healthy activities to take Corbiel’s class. I was told to wear sweatpants but found that I was such an exercise freak, I didn’t own a pair of sweatpants. I wore jeans instead, much to my later regret.

The class was held in one of The Park’s upper rooms. All the other students were female, and I soon found out why. Kickboxing was way too hard, and it didn’t feel like we got any breaks. Plus, the music Corbiel played”vintage Motown set to a disco beat”sounded like something women would do aerobics to. Of course, aerobics would have been a walk in the park compared to what Corbiel put us through.

First we stretched, of course. I’ve never really learned how to stretch and found that it’s even more difficult when you’re wearing denim. Then Corbiel led us through the exercises. The first thing I learned is that it’s easier to move your arms than your legs. I didn’t mind shadow-boxing as much as I minded shadow-kicking. The toughest moves involved kicking and punching at the same time. We did reps to the pulsing beat until I couldn’t take it anymore. Then Corbiel would shout out the most sadistic words I’ve ever heard: “Two more.”

We did get two breaks. Corbiel claims they lasted 2-3 minutes in Earth time when in fact they were only 30 seconds long in out-of-shape journalist time. The women around me weren’t struggling”they were thriving. But that’s because they are physically fit and know the moves. Lack of technique, in fact, became my undoing.

For example, the most difficult exercise for me was the forward kick. When I kicked, I felt a burning sensation in my hip flexors, because, apparently, I was ripping them to shreds. But this was because I was kicking like a stiff-legged Irish dancer rather than a fluid Bruce Lee. It turned out my angle of attack was wrong and that I could have saved myself some pain by turning my body slightly to the side. The good news is that I’m now eligible for the first-ever hip-flexor transplant.

Still, I really enjoyed the workout and liked displaying my pugilistic form on the straight jab. I really was getting my tensions out without punching anyone.

Then we moved on to weights. The really strong women grabbed five-pounders. Not wanting to show off, I picked up two three-pounders. We did curls and modified jumping jacks with those weights and … hold on … just let me catch my breath here a minute.

Up on stage in front of the class, Corbiel was certainly an inspiration. She was lightning-quick with non-stop action, shouting out words of encouragement and demonstrating that some humans really can box and kick at the same time. As for myself, even in this multi-tasking world, I find it difficult to execute different moves simultaneously. But, I’m telling you: If I weren’t a 50-year-old with an exercise-free lifestyle, I’d kickbox twice a week”provided I could find a pair of sweatpants.

Corbiel, in the meantime, will continue her teaching at The Park. Her class is inspiring and empowering to her students. Plus they may lose weight and improve muscle tone.

Kickboxing could even enable women to escape a threatening situation but that, we hope, is not an immediate benefit. As Corbiel summed it up, “Kickboxing is stress management that happens to be good for you.”

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.