From Movement To Motion: Martial Applications Of Tourettic Energy

By Nicholas VanHole
Published on Jan 9th, 2018

During his insightful examination of the relationship between poetic functioning and Tourette syndrome, Professor Ronald Schleifer contends that the vocal and motor tics experienced by tourettic people stem from the same neurobiological resources as poetic language. Schleifer, however, is also quick to comment that such symptoms are not actually poetry or any art form simply in and of themselves. Therefore, as he observes, they represent generally meaningless actions. "The motor/phonic symptoms of Tourette's I describe," he writes, "do not constitute poetry: the language uttered by those who have Tourette's may no more resemble poetry than their involuntary movements resemble pantomime." In his book Awakenings, Dr. Oliver Sacks describes how the quick movements and other qualities of Tourette's-though not actual artistic manifestations-can still enhance a chosen activity. Commenting on the "abnormal suddenness and speed of movement" shown by his post-encephalitic patients Sacks, who was a well-known and rightfully celebrated neurologist in the world of Tourette's studies, writes, "A similar tendency to sudden, 'prankish' moves, allied with great speed and sometimes characteristic of Tourette syndrome."


Individuals with Tourette syndrome (or "Tourette's"), a condition characterized by sudden, involuntary motor and vocal actions known as tics, experience waves of intense physical sensations daily which, separate from creative channeling of the energies which cause such phenomena, do not lend to any greater purpose. However, through disciplined training and self-awareness of certain internal sensations, it becomes possible to attach significant meaning to tics and tourettic energy during self-defense or martial art freestyle. As a martial artist and person with Tourette's, the explosive impulses and fast-twitch energies which characterize my condition have always played a defining role in my training and the way that I aspire to move. The following describes my best efforts to direct what can be otherwise useless, distracting involuntary movements into creative but effective motion which can be used to enhance my art. This three-part article series will begin with an examination of the actual methods by which I have applied tics and tourettic energies during martial art training, then move onto the effects of breathing practices and internal arts on my condition, and conclude with a review and celebration of the portrayal of Tourette's in martial arts and disability artistry in the making of the Thai film Chocolate.


The essential purpose of the first part of this article series is to provide a basic overview of my experiences with Tourette's during training and detail how I've practiced and explored the practical use of tics and tourettic energy in martial art. Tourettic energy can most accurately be described as any variety of internal energies experienced by a Touretter which causes tics. The greater generalized principle involved in practical use of tourettic energy in martial art relies on awareness and creative channeling of such energies during self-defense and freestyle sparring. The greatest challenge encountered in my research and exploration of this topic has been the constantly changing nature of Tourette's. Often times, the moment I would begin to figure out and actively apply creative use of a particular tic or sensation, it would change or disperse. As Tourette's is a complicated, elusive, and continually changing condition, the following represents my best effort to briefly define the methods that I have formulated during training the practical utilization of many varieties of tics and tourettic energy. This requires understanding the differences between simple and complex tourettic energies, as well as describing the phenomenon of the "premonitory urge."


In the experiences of many Touretters, tics are often preceded with what is known as a premonitory urge. This term is used to describe the surge of energy or internal impulse to move that is felt just prior to many tics. While it is not accurate to equate a premonitory urge to other non-tourettic involuntary sensations that one feels before a sneeze or the urge to scratch an itch, these are often used as examples of similar but less complex feelings. Considering that tics are involuntary and can fire without prior warning as well, becoming aware of one's premonitory urges requires consistent training and self-observation. During my efforts to harness and control these premonitory sensations through proper breathing and focus, I discovered that these powerful impulses could be stored and released in the form of a modified tic during the proper moment while sparring. Over time, I began to develop my abilities in timing the release of a tic to enhance the effectiveness of a strike or manipulation. Although it can be difficult to confine the wildly complex energies involved in a tourettic experience within a definable, generalized principle, the consistency I experienced in executing this model led to the concept of harnessing the power and energy of the premonitory urge as the foundation of my use of tourettic energy in martial art.


After years of continually developing awareness of my premonitory sensations and about the overall nature of my personal condition, I've arrived at an understanding of my motor tics as a series of both simple and complex movements. Placing my tourettic energies within this dual context has helped me to understand how to best apply them in martial art as well as describe them to others. The combined roles which simple and complex tics and energies play in my personal style allow for various ways of enhancement to my overall motion, but each one also has its own specific effects. While controlling more simple tics urges mostly provide opportunities to release enhanced strikes at the right time, mindful focus and proper breathing allow my more complex premonitory energies to transition into flow with my deliberate motion.


Simple motor tics are often fast, twitchy, shock-like actions of the extremities and act as a single movement, such as a sharp arm twitch or a head jerk (the most primitive stages of my exploration with tics in marital arts involved somewhat deliberate execution of certain fast-twitch simple motor actions which my body involuntarily performed hundreds of times a day). I initially began working on timing the release of these simple tics while practicing techniques with a training partner. The enhancing effect that, for example, the well-timed release of certain arm tics could have on an arm lock or hand strike encouraged me to develop greater awareness and control over my premonitory urges to tic. In turn, this subsequently became the core concept I used to translate what I did in technique practice to actual freestyle.


Especially in certain positions that are common during my freestyle activities, the raw movement of these simple motor tics have, at times, proved to be useful. During practice fighting in the clinch, for example, I discovered a use for a sharp shoulder-jerking tic I once experienced. My coach at that time had illustrated how to dig our foreheads into our opponent's eye socket while clinching up with an opponent, causing them severe discomfort and creating the necessary distance between ones shoulder (weapon) and opponent's chin (target) to execute a strike. This matched up perfectly with an existing tic where my shoulder and head involuntarily jerked at the same time or just off-beat. Even while in active freestyle, I would often experience that surge of energy in my upper body which preempted that tic. When I began to feel it, that stubborn, forceful grinding of my forehead in my opponent's face began to satisfy the urge to tic while I concentrated on harnessing the remaining energy in my shoulder, and when the proper distance had been created, I would allow my shoulder to tic in the form of a hard strike to the chin. For my purposes, this was of monumental significance in that not only did it relieve the uncontrollable sensation I had to tic, but it also gave meaning to my tics by enhancing my chosen action.


Channeling the energy of my premonitory sensations into strikes and manipulations inspired several instances where my tics were given meaning through application in sparring. I became increasingly aware of opportunities to integrate other simple motor tics into my motion. During a time when I was constantly experiencing a tic where the entire left side of my body would suddenly lock and stiffen, I found usefulness in applying it towards a sweep. Particularly while fighting taller opponents, I worked a strategy to shuffle into close distance-such as slipping underneath a jab while in an open stance (where you and your opponent have opposite feet forward) and buckle my lead knee behind his while reaching my left arm across his torso. I controlled the energy I had to tic until I was properly positioned and then released it as I locked into a horse stance with strong posture to execute the sweep. Releasing the energy of the tic while executing the sweep infused the action with the power of the tic.


As I continued to discover different ways to creatively express the same tic in multiple situations, I began to notice that my methods were most useful in close range or contact manipulation situations. As a result, this opened up opportunities for me to express my tics for offense or defensive purposes, and while standing up or on the ground. At a time when I once experienced very sharp but brief full-body convulsions, I found multiple uses in escaping hugs and holds by creating necessary distance between me and my opponent and then releasing the force of the tic. In one instance while submission grappling, I was caught in a position where my opponent pinned me from the back with a bear hug. Simply shaking an opponent off is rarely possible until some gap or distance is created in his grip, so I clasped my hands together in a vice and after forcing his arms further apart, I relaxed and allowed my body to involuntarily convulse which then effectively broke his grip. This allowed me to quickly shuffle out of his grasp and regain better position.


Expressing my tics in martial art does not always rely so heavily on creating certain openings or working out of certain positions. Out of the myriad of different motor tics/tourettic sensations that I have experienced, one of the most useful and versatile of them has been a premonitory vibrating sensation I used to feel in the area of my right triceps which caused my arm to shoot forcefully downwards and lock in position for a second or two. From this simple motor tic, regular awareness of the urge and re-training of the consequent movement eventually allowed me to translate the tic into a fast back-knuckle motion. The enhanced effect this tic gave to my right back-knuckle strikes became most apparent to me during freestyle sparring as I could land the strike more effectively and consistently when I felt and utilized the premonitory energy in my motion. When matched with obscuring my lead (right) hand with my opponent's lead hand, my success in landing this initial strike became even more consistent.


To my opinion, the highest level of proficiency using tourettic energies in martial art lies within the harnessing and integration of more complex tourettic energies into ones art and motion. Complex motor tics are patterns of movement which involve multiple actions of the limbs or entire body. Unlike simple motor tics, the premonitory sensations involved in complex motor tics are not localized in one area but rather affect multiple muscle groups and can create a feeling of intense vibration and tension throughout the body. Through lots of training with mindful focus and relaxed breathing patterns, I have attempted to channel these more intense, volatile energies into effective and controlled motion. Three interrelated areas that I have explored in trying to make complex tics work in my favor are speed, overall high-physical energy, and eliminating telegraphing.


One of my central goals in using tics to enhance my motion is pure speed of action. While both simple and complex tics can inspire speed in my strikes, waves of shock-like energy I often experience with complex motor tics in particular present the best opportunities to develop greater speed and fast-twitch motion. When I achieve a state of keen focus matched with relaxed breathing patterns, all of the tension and anxiety from my premonitory energies can be transferred into my motion. Instead of performing bits of an unuseful complex motor tic during sparring, my objective is to release short bursts of that energy in my strikes and maneuvers. Additionally, the daily involuntary training of fast-twitch action I experience through both simple and complex motor tics condition and develop my muscles to employ such action.


Similar to speed, the excess of physical energy I can experience during episodes of high tic activity can be used to my advantage. Once again, when proper breath and focus are accomplished, I can occasionally channel what are otherwise unruly energies from complex premonitory urges into a flow of deliberate, effective action. During freestyle, a central skill I aspire to which aligns well with my Tourette's is keeping in constant motion. The idea behind this is to make me an active rather than still target for my opponent and consequently more difficult to read and deal with.


A critical area which tourettic energy can compliment martial art that has especially captured my interest is the topic of reducing telegraphed motion, or unintended warnings to your opponent about how you are going to strike. As a result of the process of building and releasing tension generated from tics and premonitory urges, strikes fired with the fully-committed intent of a tic involve no hesitation and travel directly from the weapon's point of origin. When I attain proper focus and connection with my tics and tourettic energies, all my motion is more pure in its commitment and intent. Essentially, the better I synchronize my mind and actions with my tourettic energies, the effect of purifying the intent of my strikes-or minimizing telegraphed motion-happens more automatically. Therefore, with tics being the forceful and reflex-like actions that they are, strikes infused with the energy of tics are executed with the same force and commitment. By harnessing the energies from simple and more complex sets of tics into my intended actions, unintended actions such as dropping a hand before throwing a punch or tensing up just before moving in on an opponent can be minimized.


In a way, striking with true intent-or not telegraphing-captures the very essence of tourettic movement. When completely unsuppressed, there is nothing about Tourette's that is at all concerned with caution or preemptive gestures of intent. The body is instantly triggered to perform certain movements which have no reason to pause or deviate in any way from their intended path of action. As a result, moving in tune with my tourettic energies allows me to execute my chosen actions with greater commitment and access the best version of my personal style. If, in theory, a martial artist with Tourette's established a connection with his or her tics so great that tourettic impulses they experienced during fighting were transferred immediately and automatically into an effective strike, it would be virtually impossible for telegraphing to occur. Within the combined topics of tics and telegraphing lie secrets about impulse and control that can perhaps open the gateway into that special state of mind which Bruce Lee once referred to, saying, "I do not hit, it hits all by itself."


Tics and tourettic energy not only influence the way that I strive to move and fight, but also my personal philosophies about motion and possibilities regarding creative expression of my condition. In their most raw and unrestrained form, ticcing movements might not-as notably observed by Schleifer-be meaningful artistic expressions on their own, but can be given meaning through creative use and re-expression of such actions. When exploring tics and Tourette's from the perspective of kinetic art rather than scientific inquiry, the possibility of redefining tourettic movement as an organic part of combative motion truly becomes clear as time spent training blurs the gap between these dual experiences. The method I have established for effective use and expression of tics in martial art is, as with any area, a constant process of refinement and discovery. Consequently, this article only reflects the most recent evolution of this idea. While I am excited about the potential for enhancement of my art, in no way, however, does Tourette's provide me with extraordinary abilities or qualities others cannot also obtain. Rather, it simply gives me a distinctive set of tools to work with that, if executed honestly, can work to my favor and might even give me an advantage. By redirecting and controlling such energies, meaningless involuntary movements can be transformed into controlled and effective motion, in turn creating an alternative release for tics, opportunities for self-actualization, and perhaps most of all, a unique and fascinating outlet for artistry.


1. Ronald Schleifer, "The Poetics of Tourette Syndrome: Language, Neurobiology, and Poetry," New Literary History, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Summer 2001): 564.


2. Oliver Sacks, Awakenings, 1st ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 24n26. At this point where Sacks compares the quick movements of his encephalitic patients with that of tourettic individuals, he interestingly references the example of a post-encephalitic amateur boxer who "attributed his success less to strength and skill than to the extraordinary speed and strangeness of his movements - movements which, without being illegal, were so odd as to be completely unanswerable." Sacks discusses or details the artistic applications of tourettic energies from various people with the condition in several of his other works. For example, see especially Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, rev. ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), 247-253.


3. Awareness of premonitory urges and response training also acts as the central concept underlying some significant contemporary alternative clinical therapies for tics and Tourette's. For further reading, see Nicholas VanHole, Shared Consciousness: A Social History of Tourette Syndrome and its Treatments, Master's Thesis, University of Montana, 2012.


4. The classification of tics as either simple or complex is common in most Tourette's medical literature. For example, see National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website,; International Parkinson and Movement Disorder Society website,


5. See Enter the Dragon, Starring Bruce Lee, Directed by Robert Clouse. Warner Brothers, 1973.

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