Though you may often see the word Qi spoken of as "Vital Energy" or "Life Energy," the word has many different shades of meaning. In Qigong, breathing techniques are used to strengthen Life Force, which naturally enhances health and wellness.
Today I want to focus on the concept of Qi as a combination of these two ideas which are often mentioned together: Breath, and Vital Energy, that animating principle that makes you alive. (Vital, as you know, is derived from the L. vita which means life or soul.)
The Chinese character for Qi shows us everything we need for life; food, water and especially air. I have colored the parts of the character to distinguish the different parts. The red lines represent grains of rice, the black part represents the pot in which the rice is cooking in water, and the blue lines above show the air as steam or vapor rising from the pot.
The delightfully amazing thing is that words meaning both Breath and Vital or Life Energy are in the vocabulary of many different languages. In some cases this correlation has been forgotten over time and as the usage of words has changed.
One word that may be most familiar, especially to practitioners of Yoga, is Prana, a Sanskrit word for "Breath." In the Hindu tradition, which gave birth to the practice of Yoga, Prana means "Breath of Life."
Another familiar entry is Spirit, the Latin word meaning both "to breathe" and "soul."
Galen of Pergamon, the famous Greek physician (c. 175 CE), declared that Pneuma is both "Breath" and "Spirit." In fact, he broke it down even further and taught that there were three types of Pneuma, one found in the brain, one in the heart, and one in the liver. However, the Greek word Psyche comes in a close second with the meanings of "Soul, Heart, Energy, Spirit, Courage."
The Anglo Saxon word that conveys the dual meaning of Breath and Life Energy is not actually Breath, but Ghost from the ancient word Gast which meant "Breath; Soul, Spirit Life." Originally, a Ghost wasn't a scary thing that haunted your house. The word carried a more spiritual connotation, as in Holy Ghost, the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the Latin "Sanctus Spiritus," i.e. "Holy Spirit."
The connection of Breath and Life Force is a global phenomenon that spans time as well as space.
The Lakota vocabulary contains the word Woniya Wakan which means "Holy Air," and the Cree have Oenikika, "Breath of Life."
The Mayans called it Ik, and the Babylonians called it Vahu; both meant "Breath of Life," and was also the name of their respective Wind Gods.
The ancient Hawaiians said Ha when talking about their "Breath of Life" or "Life Force Energy."
You can see that breath and breathing have long been connected with life energy, and just about every spiritual tradition connects it with spirituality or higher levels of consciousness. If you practice qigong for a long time, you often discover that, no matter what spiritual tradition you follow, your spirituality deepens as time goes by.