The topic of cardiorespiratory interactions is of extreme importance to the practicing intensivist. It also has a reputation for being intellectually challenging, due in part to the enormous volume of relevant, at times contradictory literature. Another source of difficulty is the need to simultaneously consider the interrelated functioning of several organ systems (not necessarily limited to the heart and lung), in other words, to adopt a systemic (as opposed to analytic) point of view. We believe that the proper understanding of a few simple physiological concepts is of great help in organizing knowledge in this field. The first part of this review will be devoted to demonstrating this point. The second part, to be published in a coming issue of Intensive Care Medicine, will apply these concepts to clinical situations. We hope that this text will be of some use, especially to intensivists in training, to demystify a field that many find intimidating.